College Football Players at Risk for High Blood Pressure

A new study finds that college linemen had elevated blood pressure levels after their seasons ended.

Football Image via Shutterstock.

Football Image via Shutterstock.

College football players may be at risk for high blood pressure just like the pros, according to a new study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers.

The study, which was published in the journal Circulation on Monday, followed 113 freshmen on Harvard University’s football team for a season. While none of the players had high blood pressure at the beginning of the season, 14 percent did at the end of the season. All of the affected players were linemen.

The study explains that while hypertension, which is a strong determinant for cardiovascular disease risk, has been documented for elite, professional football players, the risk of increased blood pressure has not been studied in college-level football players until now. “High blood pressure at any point is not a good thing because it can lead to heart disease,” says the study’s lead researcher Dr. Aaron Baggish. “Developing risk factors for heart disease is key. There are hundreds of thousands of college football players in America, so it’s important to know that they are one of the populations that needs to be under closer surveillance, especially groups like linemen who show persistently elevated blood pressure levels.”

There could be a number of reasons for the linemen’s blood pressure increases, but the increases were most likely tied to weight gain, training, and family history, Baggish says. Heavy lifting can cause spikes in blood pressure, and while some weight gain may be muscle mass from that heavy lifting, that would not change the weight gain’s effects on blood pressure. The linemen put on an average of seven pounds during the season, whereas other players on the team held a steady weight.

Baggish says that the take away is that college (and perhaps even high school) football players are not immune to health issues just because they are young and athletic. “We spend a lot of time thinking about screening athletes before sports, but much less time thinking about the effects that sports can have on health during and after the fact,” Baggish says. “While playing sports is a great way to prevent health problems, it may also have consequences which we need to be aware of.”

The study recommends that linemen have their blood pressure checked before and after the playing season, and that’s especially important if they have high blood pressure to begin with, if they gain weight during the season, or if their parents have high blood pressure, too. The authors also recommend developing specific intervention programs for young athletes, which may improve their cardiovascular health later in life. Dietary restrictions, medication, and weight loss programs may reduce high blood pressure.

While the study’s findings do not translate directly to other college-level sports, Baggish says that sports similar to football may also present health concerns. “At this point, we can only safely extrapolate for football players, but studies on the health of athletes from other sports are definitely necessary,” he says.