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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
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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