Does playing sport during younger adulthood protect us against cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and muscle mass loss into older age?

The Introduction

Most people become less active as they age. This more sedentary lifestyle is associated with increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), osteoporosis, and loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia). But what if we have been athletes in our younger age? Will that protect me from these lifestyle diseases?

The Research

young and oldAn American study examined whether 16 former professional NFL football players (66±6 years) would have reduced risk factors for CVD and osteoporosis, and higher muscle mass in later life compared to age- and body weight-matched older people doing the same level of activity. The researchers from the Baltimore Veterans Administration Medical Centre measured aerobic capacity (VO2max), body composition, and lipid and glucose risk factors for CVD and compared them to a control group of never-athletic men matched for age, body mass index, current physical activity, and race.

The Results

Despite greater physical activity into middle age, the former football players had similar aerobic capacity as the never-active men. However, the former football players had 26% lower total-body fat mass, 26% lower abdominal fat tissue area, and 13% higher muscle mass compared with the controls. The cardio-protective high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) levels were 37% higher and cardio-damaging triglycerides were 31% lower in the former football players than the controls. The former football players also had 20% and 6% higher total-body bone mineral content and density than the controls and higher bone mineral density in the lower back, hip and thigh bones than similar age-referenced normal values.

The So Whats

These results strongly suggest that playing high-performance in young adulthood, and remaining physically active into middle age, may confer body composition changes that are sustained in older adulthood. In this small sample of older men, former successful professional athletes who remained physically active in middle age have a favourable body composition and reduced risk factors for CVD and osteoporosis compared with healthy age- and BMI-matched older men.

Photo from: Adam Baker

Lynch N.A., Ryan A.S., Evans J., Katzel L.I., Goldberg A.P. (2007). Older elite football players have reduced cardiac and osteoporosis risk factors. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 39(7): 1124-30.