In May, the National Football League shared some surprising news with the same group of retired players that had spent the past two years launching lawsuits against their former employer: The vast majority of them are living longer than the general population. A study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that NFL players from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were dying far less frequently than men of similar ages and races from the general population. The study — initially commissioned by the NFL in 1990, released in 1994, and then updated in 2007 — quickly became national news, as it arrived just days after the suicide of former Chargers star Junior Seau.
NIOSH’s study, published in the American Journal of Cardiology this past March, found there was a statistically significant difference between the number of NFL retirees1 who had died by the end of 2007 and the figure that was expected, given the mortality rates of the general U.S. population. Researchers noted that NFL players were substantially less likely to suffer cancer-related deaths; the study found just 85 players passed away from the cause, against an expectation of 146.8. Meanwhile, players also had healthier hearts, as 126 players died of cardiovascular disease when a total of 186.2 was expected.
Those two findings both highlight the limitations in the NIOSH study and emphasize why additional research is needed. It’s no surprise that football players have healthier hearts than average Americans; they’ve spent decades building up cardiovascular strength in ways that the broader population likely hasn’t. They’ve also enjoyed access to top-notch doctors and health care options during their NFL careers. While the league’s pension system has come under some scrutiny, NFL retirees are more likely to have health insurance than men of a similar age, particularly given their ability to pay for private insurance. It seems likely that increased availability to health care would mean that ex-players could receive more frequent cancer screenings, which would lead to early detections and more successful treatments.
Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.