Retired NFL players have higher risk of irregular heartbeat, study shows

According to new research, retired National Football League players have a higher risk for atrial fibrillation, or AFib, a type of irregular heartbeat that can lead to stroke.  

“What we found, was that the retired NFL athletes had about a 5.7-fold increased risk of atrial fibrillation when you compared them to the general population,” said lead study author Dr. Dermot Phelan, of Cleveland Clinic. 

Researchers screened 460 former NFL players and compared them to 925 men of about the same age, who weren’t professional athletes. 

Results show the former NFL players were nearly six times more likely to have AFib. 

They also had a slightly increased risk of needing a pacemaker, a lower incidence of high blood pressure and better cholesterol control. 

Phelan said it’s already known that middle-aged high endurance athletes, like competitive runners and cyclists, face an increased risk of AFib, but this is the first time data shows a similar risk in strength athletes. 

He said 80% of the NFL players diagnosed with AFib during the study didn’t have symptoms and didn’t know they had it -- but should have been taking medicine to reduce their stroke risk.

He adds that retired NFL players and their loved ones need to make sure heart rhythm screening is part of an annual checkup. 

“We found, with this particular group, their heart rate was a little bit slower and they didn’t actually get the tachycardia, or the fast heart rates, that we normally see with atrial fibrillation and therefore did not have any symptoms,” he said. “This is why we need to be a little bit more vigilant with this particular population.”

Phelan stresses this study looked at professional athletes who engage in extreme levels of exercise -- not the average person. He said the research should not discourage anyone from mild to moderate exercise, because AFib risk actually decreases for the average person with exercise. 

Complete results can be found online in the Journal of the American Heart Association