According to a unique study by Dr. Saul Newman from Oxford’s Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science, baseball and basketball players who peaked early or experienced a fast decline in their athletic abilities lived significantly shorter lives.
The study, published in Science Advances, utilized data spanning 150 years from 24,000 U.S. male athletes to make this correlation.
Athletic Performance and Lifespan
Dr. Newman found that athletes who peaked early had a 1.2-year shorter adult life expectancy, while those who maintained athletic performance for longer had an 0.8-year higher life expectancy.
Intriguingly, athletes who peaked at different ages, or whose skills declined at different rates, appeared to age at different rates.
For example, athletes who peaked later had mortality rates that doubled every 7.6 years, while those who peaked early saw their mortality rates double every 8.4 years.
The study found a positive association between height and late-life mortality rates in baseball and basketball players, meaning taller athletes were more likely to die earlier.
Early-Life Physical Capacity and Mortality
The research used data on athletes’ height, body mass index (BMI), and performance metrics such as the batting average for baseball players, and the number of points scored by a basketball player per game.
The aim was to understand the correlation between early-life physical capacity and mortality.
“We know reaction times, motor functions, aerobic and anaerobic performance all decline with the onset of aging. However, little is known about the effect of early-life physiological decline on mortality.
With this study, I hoped to gain insights on this link by examining unique and rich historical data from elite athletes, which capture the early-life physical capacity of a unique group of people,” explained Dr. Newman.
The Predictive Power of Athletic Data
This study found that early-life athletic performance data can be used to predict late-life mortality and aging in elite male athletes.
“Early-life declines in athletic performance allow late-life mortality to be predicted better than age alone and have comparable predictive power to early-life BMI and height,” the study concluded.
The research also explored whether race and racism played a role in shortening players’ careers and lifespans.
While the effects of racism couldn’t be ruled out, the study found that the observed impact couldn’t be explained by racism alone.
This study opens a promising avenue for future research, especially in exploring the same link in female elite athletes and in broader populations.
With the rise of wearable technologies providing extensive activity data, these links can be tested in wider populations.
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The study was published in Science Advances.
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