Studying Elite Athletes: Do They Live Longer?

There is a great understanding of an athlete’s competitive career, but what are their post-career outcomes? Research has shown that sports participation has a positive health impact on individuals but can participate in sports at an elite level increase longevity? This article explores the impact of longevity on high-performance elite-level athletes.

Key takeaways:

What is an elite athlete?

“Elite” is a widely used term to describe the level of athletic performance. For example, an elite athlete competes nationally, internationally, or professionally. Elite athletes participate in a sport that often requires a high-performance level of training to be the best.

There are differences in defining “elite” among individual athletes versus team sports. Individual sports can quantify performance directly, making determining an athlete’s performance level easier. This is not a common practice for team sports.

Team sports are more likely to be considered elite based on their ranking or the level of the league the sport is participating in. Team sports that participate in the highest professional league are often considered elite. Therefore, an elite athlete is one who participates in an individual or team sport at a high level.

Health consequences of an elite athlete

Research has shown that exercise can improve health, reduce mortality rates, and decrease the risks of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer. Elite athletes commonly engage in high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Despite this, evidence suggests that exercising beyond a certain volume and intensity can have negative health consequences.

For instance, a study conducted on German marathon runners over a two-year observational period showed that recreational German marathon runners had a similar incidence of cardiovascular events compared to a population with established coronary heart disease. However, further studies have shown that light and moderate joggers showed lower mortality risks when compared to strenuous joggers.

While exercise has been shown to be healthy, there are several health issues that can occur in elite athletes, including the following:

  • Exercise-associated muscle cramps
  • Heart problems
  • Asthma
  • Heat stroke
  • Overtraining syndrome
  • Mental health issues
  • Rhabdomyolysis
  • Runners stitch

These health issues are important to treat to avoid long-term health consequences, which could impact longevity.

Elite athletes and longevity

A study examining all-cause mortality in former athletes, specifically cardiovascular and cancer-specific mortality, shows that elite athletes live longer than the general population. Although male athletes have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, power sports athletes’ all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality rates were not much different from the general population.

Furthermore, endurance athletes’ cancer mortality was not significantly different from the general population. No differences were seen in nervous system disorders and mental illnesses between elite athletes and the general population.

Additional studies examining professional athletes in the United States showed that elite athletes live longer than the general population. A study that examined U.S. Olympians found that female and male U.S. Olympic athletes live five years longer than the general population. This study concluded that these athletes had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, which directly impacted their increased longevity.

Limitations were seen in many of the studies on longevity in elite athletes. While there is a comprehensive understanding of an athlete’s health and performance while they are participating in a sport, there is limited data on their post-career outcomes.

Thus, further research is needed to look at the mechanisms that may affect mortality risk to gain a better understanding of both elite and non-elite populations. The current studies show that participation in an elite sport generally leads to increased longevity.



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