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The Woes of the Pros

June 17, 2007

By Michelle Andrews

Busted knees. Wrecked backs. Memory loss and depression. Heart attacks. Being a professional may be great while it lasts, but the beating elite athletes' bodies take often really sidelines them once they retire:

Heads up. A study published last month by the American College of Sports Medicine found that retired professional football players who reported three or more concussions were three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression than teammates who didn't get "dinged." Earlier research found that retired football players may develop Alzheimer's earlier than the general population. "We're beginning to piece together the puzzle," says Kevin Guskiewicz, who led the recent study and is director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Neurologists of former pros have linked depression and cognitive decline to concussions sustained over the years by players like Ted Johnson, a former New England Patriots linebacker, and Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back who committed suicide in November at 44.

Bulked up. In April, former Washington Redskins linebacker Kevin Mitchell died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. He was 36. Bigger is better in today's football league, and there are now hundreds of players like Mitchell, who tip the scales at more than 250 pounds. When they retire, these guys face the same increased risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke that any overweight person faces, perhaps compounded by past steroid or supplement use and joint injuries that make exercise difficult.

Aching joints. Experts agree that pros in just about any sport are likely to have higher levels of osteoarthritis than the general population, and to have it at a younger age. Osteoarthritis occurs when, either through overuse or trauma, the fibrous cartilage that helps joints move smoothly gets worn away, causing pain and stiffness. Baseball players have elbow problems; tennis and volleyball players' shoulders get stiff. Knees are common trouble spots for pros in many different fields, especially a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which connects the bones in the knee joint. "If you tear your ACL, your risk for knee osteoarthritis is going to be higher," says Sheila Dugan, a physiatrist who chairs the strategic health initiative for women, sports, and physical activity for the American College of Sports Medicine. "You're likely to get it earlier and it will be more extensive."

Think the sorts of woes these athletes suffer don't apply to regular mortals? Think again. Yes, it's a matter of degree. But any athlete interested in preventing a disabling injury can learn from what happens to bodies that are pushed to the extreme.

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