Does Playing Team Sport into Older Age Protect Us from Chronic Disease?


We all know that being active into older age helps protect us from the ravages of chronic disease and many age-related disorders. Indeed, research has shown that the more aerobically fit we are the better off we are in preventing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some forms of cancer. But what about older people that play team sports? Are they as well protected against these age- and lifestyle-related diseases as masters endurance athletes.

A mate of mine, Associate Professor Mike Climstein, from Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast has looked into this question and recently published his findings.

The Research

Mike and his international research team conducted an online survey of 216 35-plus year old Rugby Union players attending the International Golden Oldies World Rugby Festival. They examined the player’s medical history and some physiological measures then statistically compared the under 50’s and over 50’s players then compared the incidence of chronic disease and conditions with those of a normal Australian population.

The Results

Below are dot-pointed findings from the study:

  • The incidence of smoking was low (8.8%) at averaged 72.4 cigarettes per week
  • The percentage drinking alcohol was high (93.1%) at 11.2 drinks per week (Recommended is 2 drinks per day)
  • The top 6 chronic diseases/conditions reported were: 1. hypertension(18.6%) 2. arthritis (11.5%) 3. asthma (9.3%) 4. high blood fats (8.2%) 5. diabetes (7.5%) 6. gout (6%)
  • When compared to the incidence of chronic disease/conditions in a normal age- and gender-matched Australian population, the older rugby players had significantly lower incidence of anxiety, arthritis, and depression but higher incidence of diabetes, and hypertension
  • Medications were common with 13% taking blood pressure tablets, 8% blood fat lowering medications, 6% anti-inflammatories and 4% blood thinning drugs. Those over 50 years of age were taking significantly more blood pressure, blood thinning and blood fat lowering drugs than the younger players.
  • The rugby players over 50 years had a higher waist circumference (a heart disease risk factor) than the younger players.
  • In general, the players under 50 reported a higher incidence of most chronic conditions and diseases compared to the older players.

So What?

The results suggest that playing team sports into older age may not protect masters athletes from some chronic diseases/conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Moreover, the results suggest that younger team players need to be more aware of their lifestyle habits than older players when it comes to maintaining optimal health into older age.

For more reading based on what science supports for successful aging, read Chapter 1 of my book The Masters Athlete that identifies the Keys to Successful Aging.

Source: Climstein, M. and others (2011). Incidence of chronic disease and lipid profile in veteran Rugby athletes. World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, 80: 1095-1099.