Age at league entry and early all-cause mortality among national football league players

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: A growing body of research suggests that American football players are exposed to higher cumulative head impact risk as competition level rises. Related literature finds that head impacts absorbed by youth, adolescent, and emerging adult players are associated with elevated risk of long-term health problems (e.g., neurodegenerative disease onset). Most National Football League (NFL) players enter the League as emerging adults (18–24 years old), a period of continued cognitive and overall physical development. However, no prior research has studied the effect of age-at-entry on long-term NFL player health. Hypothesis/Purpose: This study assesses whether early NFL player age-at-entry is associated with increased risk of early all-cause mortality, controlling for player position, BMI, year-of-entry, birth year, and NFL Draft round (expected ability upon League entry). Study Design: This retrospective cohort study included 9049 players who entered the NFL from 1970–2017 and subsequently played at least one game. The variables whether deceased, age-at-death, age-at-entry, and controls were collected from Pro Football Reference website, a leading data site for American football that has been used extensively in the literature. Data collection began on 13 July 2017, and follow-up ended on 1 July 2018. Statistical analysis was performed from 10 March 2020 to 3 August 2020. Data was validated by checking a large sub-sample of data points against alternative sources such as NFL.com and NFLsavant.com. Methods: Cox proportional hazards regression models were used to examine variation in death hazard by NFL player age-at-entry, conditional upon a full set of controls. Results: Conditional on controls, Cox regression results indicate that a one-year increase in age-at-entry was significantly associated with a 14% decreased hazard-of-death (H.R., 0.86; 95% CI, 0.74–0.98). Among relatively young entering players, the increased hazard appears to be concentrated in the first quartile of players by age at League entry (20.2 to 22.3 years). Players not in this quartile exhibited a decreased hazard-of-death (H.R., 0.74; 95% CI, 0.57–0.97) compared with players who entered at a relatively young (first quartile) age. Conclusion: An earlier age-at-entry is associated with an increased hazard-of-death among NFL players. Currently, the NFL regulates age-at-entry only indirectly by requiring players to be 3 years removed from high school before becoming NFL Draft-eligible. Implementing a minimum age at entry for NFL players of 22 years and 4 months at beginning of season is expected to result in reduced mortality. What is known about this subject? There are no prior studies on the effects of NFL player age-at-entry on early mortality risk. What this study adds to existing knowledge: This study determines whether entering the NFL at an age of physical and physiological development is related to early mortality risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number13356
JournalInternational journal of environmental research and public health
Volume18
Issue number24
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021

Keywords

  • American football
  • Cox proportional hazard regression
  • Cumulative head impact
  • League health and safety policy
  • Mortality
  • NFL player health
  • Retired athletes
  • Risk factors
  • Sports

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pollution
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis

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