RESEARCH WATCH: Do Former Elite Athletes Live Longer?
In a word, no. I came across this study today and to be honest the idea intrigued me. It reminds us that moderation is important. Elite athletes make so many sacrifices to maximise their skills and abilities, but do they considered the long term effects of their choice?
This study isn't perfect, the authors do acknowledge this. There are plenty of factors this kind of paper simply cannot control for, however in principle, this idea makes sense and certainly makes for an interesting read! You can read the full article here or have a butchers at my summary below...
Do Former Elite Athletes Live Longer? New Evidence From German Olympic Athletes
Lutz Thieme and Michael Fröhlich (2020)
This study considered all 6,066 German athletes who competed at Olympic Games between 1956 and 2016 and compared their mortality rates with the German population. They found that the Olympians have a lower survival rate than the general population. Furthermore, there was a linear pattern between level of success and survival probability - the more successful the athlete, the lower their survival.
Significantly more male athletes have died (9% of male Olympians) compared to female athletes (2%). There was also a difference between the athletes who competed between 1956-1988 when Germany was divided into East and West; the West German Olympians have a higher death rate (13%) compared to East German athletes (7%).
This study indicates that at the most elite level, the health benefits of sport not only is lost, but sport itself might actually be a risk factor. The paper’s authors suggest that increasing training loads will have taken a tole on the athletes, especially the more successful ones, but also risk factors such as sport accidents, heart failure, suicide and doping will likely have all played a part in higher mortality rates in Olympians.
I’ll point out, a shorter lifespan does not necessarily mean a less healthy lifespan, but currently there is little in the way of empirical evidence to interrogate this idea. There is also little consideration in this study for the change in lifestyle when elite athletes retire. Indeed, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest many athletes struggle both mentally and physically with the transition into retirement and thus may have an increased risk of mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse and even obesity. This paper can only theorise about such factors, but I suspect there is something in that…
Front. Sports Act. Living, 06 November 2020 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2020.588204