MONDAY, Dec. 5, 2016 -- Football players, particularly linemen, may have higher risk of elevated blood pressure and potentially harmful structural changes in the heart, a new study suggests.
"Our study confirmed associations between football participation, high blood pressure and cardiac remodeling," said study senior author Dr. Aaron Baggish, an associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Cardiac remodeling refers to changes in the size and shape of the heart.
What's worrisome, Baggish said, is that the changes detected in young college athletes may be "maladaptive," or harmful.
"This type of change to the heart is concerning in this population of young, otherwise healthy athletes, and raises questions about long-term health implications," Baggish said in a news release from the American College of Cardiology.
Using data from a project called the Harvard Athlete Initiative, Baggish and his colleagues tracked 30 linemen and 57 other players during their first season of college play, between 2008 and 2014. Another 103 players started the study but were excluded for various reasons.
When the roughly three-month season began, 57 percent of the linemen and 51 percent of the non-linemen were found to have pre-high blood pressure.
By season's end, 90 percent of linemen had high blood pressure or pre-high blood pressure, compared to only 49 percent of non-linemen, the researchers said.
Some linemen also showed signs of heart-wall thickening and a mild decline in the heart's ability to contract, according to the study.
"Importantly, the pattern of heart remodeling seen among football linemen differs markedly from the 'athletic heart' patterns common among endurance athletes," the researchers said.
Instead, the study authors reported that the changes they detected were more in line with patterns seen in older people with serious blood pressure issues.
The research doesn't establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, and the authors acknowledge that the study had limitations. For instance, the study was small in number of participants and didn't fully examine other factors that affect blood pressure.
The report was published Dec. 5 in the journal JACC: Cardiovascular Imaging.
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