University of North Carolina researchers conducted the study.
Washington: Turns out, college students who play football on a regular basis are prone to future breathing problems.
According to a new study, health problem in football players may begin much earlier, and at an age when the condition is less likely to occur in the general population.
The study, which was conducted by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, suggested while it is not yet possible to identify the cause of the increased risk, a comparison study with other competitive athletes of the same age implied a relationship between physical conditioning specific to football linemen and the health threat.
Studies with professional football players have also shown that sleep apnea, a serious breathing disorder during sleep common in older men, is also common in professional players, and in particular, in linemen.
The authors are exercise physiologists Bailey Beck and Joseph S. Marino, sleep psychologists Hannah Peach and Jane Gaultney, and biologist Timothy Renzi.
Though the sleep apnea risks found in college-age linemen are not as dramatic as those found in previous studies with older players, the findings implied higher future risks and pointed to the need to fully assess the potential consequences of college training - particularly for linemen who quit conditioning after college when they do not pursue careers as professional football players.
"At the professional level there have been two studies - one for retired football players and one for current -- that showed they were at greater risk for sleep-disorder breathing", noted Jane Gaultney.
"We wondered if that tendency was also visible at the college level, because college is, in some sense, a window of opportunity when you can educate people on health risks," she said.
Since it would be unexpected to find evidence of any significant occurrence of sleep-disordered breathing in a college-age sample, the study was designed to target the likeliest candidates to detect early signals of the condition.
For a comparison population, the researchers picked track athletes - specifically runners - because their sport tends to demand a lean body-type which would contrast with the standard bulk of the linemen, but with equivalent levels of physical exertion, training and athleticism.
The researchers' reasoning for the study design was that the most common reason for sleep-disordered breathing - sleep apnea - in older people is fairly well understood and relates to neck structure.
"There is solid correlational data that compares neck circumference and sleep apnea," Marino agreed. "We found when we compared our linemen that there were significantly larger necks compared with our leaner control group and that seemed to pair up well with our data."
The study compared data from the two test groups acquired through the use of the Multivariable Apnea Prediction survey a self-report tool used to screen symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, as well as physiological measures that have been associated with obstructive sleep apnea (such as neck circumference, tonsil size, and a measure of the amount of clear space between the base of the tongue and the roof of the mouth).
While the results did not show a high likelihood of the presence of current sleep-disordered breathing in the college-age football linemen, both self-report and physiological measures suggested significantly greater risk for the disorder in the football players when compared to the track athletes.
Though no studies have been done on the risks for sleep-disordered breathing in college football players after college, the researchers stress that there is a potential problem in life post-play that may increase the lifetime risk to college-only players.
"The chances are that most college football players are not going to the NFL, and when they stop playing college football, their physical activity might drop off," noted Marino.
"Screening them through this system can help, we think. We have put together a combination of survey and non-invasive methods to help catch those who are at risk and can make them aware that, later in life, if they don't make changes, this is a possible outcome," Marino said.
Gaultney stressed that the suspicion that a health intervention might be needed was, in part, what spurred the study.
"You can alert people that if they continue on this path, the likelihood is they are going to graduate and they are not going to be as active as when involved in their collegiate sport, leading to an increase in fat accumulation."
The study is titled 'Examination of risk for sleep-disordered breathing among college Football Players' and is published in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation.