Why do these athletes live longer than most Americans?

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published July 31, 2019

Key Takeaways

Major league baseball (MLB) players are more likely to live longer than average American men, researchers reported in a study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Epidemiologists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA, showed that professional baseball players have a 24% lower all-cause mortality rate than average men in the United States. Players with longer careers tend to have even lower rates of mortality.

MLB players also have significantly lower mortality rates for specific causes such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, unintentional injury, respiratory disease, diabetes, and suicide—all of which are among the 10 leading causes of death in the United States right now.

For this study, the Harvard researchers obtained data on 10,451 major league baseball players who started their careers between 1906 and 2006 and who died between 1979 and 2013. The researchers found that MLB players, compared with other US men, had significantly lower mortality rates from all causes and many underlying causes of death. The only exception was death from neurogenerative disease, in which baseball players had the same risk as other men.

The secret sauce

So, what’s their secret? Is it something in the Gatorade?

Probably not. The researchers chalk up baseball players’ lower rate of mortality to the “healthy worker effect.” In a nutshell, the healthy worker effect means that workers are generally healthier than non-workers. And in the case of professional baseball players, they’re also more likely to have a lower body mass index, get more exercise, and eat more healthily than the guys sitting in the stands.

MLB players also have better access to healthcare during their professional careers and in their retirement.

In a related commentary, epidemiologist John W. Waterbor, MD, DrPH, School of Public Health, University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Glenn Fleisig, PhD, research director, American Sports Medicine Institute, both in Birmingham, AL, wrote: “Players in MLB may have lower cause-specific mortality rates because of fitness associated with playing baseball, but other sport-related aspects—injuries, lifestyle habits, or environmental exposures particular to baseball—could adversely affect players’ health.”

In regard to sport-related harms, baseball players have slightly higher risks for certain cancers than the average American guy, even though players have less risk for cancer overall. For instance, MLB players have elevated risk for blood cancers (leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma), which adds to the evidence that toxins from artificial playing surfaces may be harming them. They also have a slight risk for oral cancers (of the lip, mouth, and throat), which might be linked to chewing tobacco.

Neither of these elevated cancer risks were statistically significant, though. Also, MLB already has programs in place to reduce tobacco use and prevent skin cancers from sun exposure.

Interestingly, the biggest discrepancy between baseball players and other US men is that players have a much lower mortality rate from suicide. “[T]his finding is striking and bears further study,” the researchers wrote. “Protective factors against suicide in older white men are connectedness to family, community, and friends, as well as physical health, all of which may be characteristic of baseball players and retirees.”

Be an outfielder, not a catcher

Perhaps not surprisingly, risks were different depending on the players’ position. For instance, shortstops and second basemen had lower overall mortality rates, as well as lower mortality rates for cancer and respiratory tract disease. Catchers had a higher mortality rate for genitourinary tract disease, while outfielders have lower injury-related mortality rates.

Trust the process

This study is important not only for baseball players but for all men, Dr. Waterbor and Dr. Fleisig noted.

“Causes of longevity are probably not specific to baseball but are instead specific to lifestyle,” they wrote. “Maintaining a proper weight, exercising, and remaining fit are effective in increasing life expectancy, especially if begun at an early age, as was likely the case for these players.”

Ordinary people may be exposed to factors that result in similar risks or advantages, just with less intensity and duration than baseball players.

“As such, results from the current study of professional athletes are consistent with previous studies demonstrating health benefits of physical activity,” Dr. Waterbor and Dr. Fleisig wrote.

This study was supported in part by the Spaulding Research Institute and by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

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