Olympic athletes typically live 5 years longer than the general population. However, Olympians involved in combat sports do not enjoy this advantage and have increased risk of neurodegenerative death when contrasted with other olympic athletes and the general population according to a recent study.
In the study, titled Heads-Up: Risk-Specific Neurodegenerative Mortality and Years-Saved Analysis on the US Olympian Cohort and published in the Frontiers of Physics, the authors reviewed the vital status and causes of deaths of former US Olympians, who participated in the Olympic Games (OG) between 1948 and 1972. They then categorized the sports into three groups, those where there were intentional collisions with opponents, those where there was occasional but not intentional contact and lastly no-contact sports. In the ‘collision’ group were all the combat sports of those years namely boxing, judo and wrestling. It also included the non combat sports (but full collision) of hockey and rugby.
The authors found that the athletes in the collision sports had a risk of developing neurodegenerative death at a rate three times higher compared to the other Olympians.
The authors made the below key findings generally related to these athletes:
This study provides three major findings, namely, (1) the risk of NDs is more than three times high among the athletes who participate in the sports greatly associated with repeated shock on the head (where players purposely and frequently hit or collide with each other and with inanimate objects, e.g., boxing and wrestling) compared with the athletes who are not exposed to such risk; (2) Olympians in Collision group loses months of life due to increased risk of death from ND when compared with the general population. In contrast, Contact sports Olympians benefited from a survival advantage, since they gain months of life compared with the general population regarding the risk of ND; and (3) despite the elevated risk of ND, the US Olympians in the Collision group still experienced survival advantage considering all causes of death with prolonged longevity compared with the general population.
Previous studies have analyzed the risk of ND by comparing high-level athletes of one specific sport with the general population, which made it challenging to truly understand the risk associated with repeated shock on the head (Ljungqvist et al., 2009; Lehman et al., 2012; Kettunen et al., 2015; Nguyen et al., 2019). We found that Collision sports athletes, collectively, were 3.11 times at higher risk of ND when compared with No-Contact sports athletes. Even when including the Olympians from the extended cohort, a similar trend was observed. This suggests that sports with higher exposure to repeated shock on the head may be associated with a higher likelihood of ND. It also provides a generalized understanding of the risk in multiple sports regardless of its game style, highlighting that participation in Collision sports may expose athletes to a higher risk of ND, potentially affected by their occupation-specific hazards. However, this finding and its implication apply only to the male population. Due to the classification of sports, no woman participated in Collision sports in both the 1948 cohort and the extended cohort.
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