The life expectancy of elite athletes

The life expectancy of elite athletes across different sports

Matthew Keogh

Oct 12, 2021

Do some sports impact the life expectancy of elite athletes more than others?

To answer this question, we’ve calculated the life expectancy of elite athletes across 10 sports, and with the help of an expert, analysed the causes of death.

In the table below, you can see our findings and how the life expectancy connected to each sport compares to the life expectancy of the world in general.

Methodology

We identified 100 elite athletes from each of the ten selected sports to determine average life expectancy. The athlete must have competed at the elite level between 1949 – 1952, and been born between 1908 – 1931. These parameters ensured that the data collected was based on one generation of athletes only and that even the youngest of this generation had the time to live to the age of 90 by 2021. View the full list of elite athletes.

The sport with the lowest life expectancy: Boxing

This result may not surprise, as boxing is the only sport in our list where the main objective is to cause your opponent bodily harm. According to experts (see below), the accumulation of head blows over time has an adverse effect on the body and can reduce life expectancy.

The sport with the highest life expectancy: Tennis

Tennis is a non-contact sport and players historically endure fewer injuries. In fact, because the sport is low impact, improves cardio fitness and can be played over a lifetime, it’s likely to promote longevity.

N.B. Given that regular exercise aligns with general health advice about keeping fit, it should come as no surprise that most of the life expectancy results displayed above are higher than the world’s general population. However, a longer life does not always equate to a higher quality of life.

Link between head trauma and cause of death (C.O.D.)

Due to the considerable disparity between boxing and other sports, we investigated every athlete’s cause of death. For the athletes where a cause of death was publicly available, we found that boxers (in particular) suffered from potentially head trauma-related causes of death more than any other sport, with American football players closely behind.

A discussion with Professor Alan Pearce

We discussed our data findings with the Director of NeuroSports Labs and Adjunct Professor at La Trobe University, Professor Alan Pearce, to further understand how life expectancy and playing elite level sport intertwines. In particular, we wanted him to help us understand whether our findings in the table above are supported by  scientific evidence.

Professor Pearce is a neuroscientist with over 20 years’ experience, here’s what he had to say about the results.

On the link between boxing and lower life expectancy…

“When it comes to boxing, it’s likely that this data reflects an effect of the accumulation of multiple bodily injuries, particularly impacts to the brain, during competitive boxing over their lifetime. We certainly now understand the long-lasting, detrimental effects of repetitive impacts to the brain, with previous research dating back to 1928 in boxers. There’s no doubt that repetitive head knocks are associated with cognitive impairment, early onset dementia, and therefore contributing to reduced life expectancy.”

Can you speak to the 13-year disparity between boxers and tennis players?

“It’s not surprising given the characteristics of the sports (contact vs non-contact), and the accumulation of repetitive trauma, not only to the brain which increases the risk of dementia and other neurogenerative diseases, but also physical trauma from repeated impacts to the body from boxing leading to less mobility later in life through osteoarthritis which can affect cardiovascular health also.”

What measures need to be taken to mitigate head trauma in certain sports?

“We will never be able to mitigate head trauma in combat and contact sports, so adults who wish to participate have to fully understand and accept the risk of playing these sports. However, we can reduce the exposure of trauma and this is starting to happen now. We are seeing this in the UK with the banning of headers in children’s soccer up to the age of 12, limiting of heading in training at the elite levels, and there is a push to modify football codes to being fully non-contact up to the age of 14.”

Will head knocks affect the future of sports?

“While sports are good for our physical health, some sports do have some elements of risk. However, as long as adults who play these sports understand the risks, and they’re not downplayed, then we should allow these sports to continue. Most importantly, it’s paramount we foster a culture that treats brain injuries as serious and that players need to fully recover before returning to play.”

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Sources

  1. Boxrec.com. The Ring Magazine’s annual rating’s 1949-1952.
  2. Wikipedia. 1949 European amateur boxing championships.
  3. ESPN.com. Top 50 MLB leaders in batting and pitching for 1949.
  4. Basketballreference.com. Top 100 players by win share for 1949-50 season.
  5. Augusta.com. Leaderboard for The Masters 1949-52.
  6. The open.com. Leaderboard for British Open 1949-52.
  7. Wikipedia. Wimbledon Championships 1949-52 – Tennis.
  8. Wikipedia. U.S National Championships 1949-52 – Tennis.
  9. Wikipedia. Australian Championships 1949-52 – Tennis.
  10. Quanthockey.com. Top 100 players by games played for the 1949-50 NHL season.
  11. ESPN.com.co.uk. International results 1949-52 – Rugby union.
  12. Stuff.co.nz. The blackest year in All Black history.
  13. Howstat.com. Match records from 1949-52 – Cricket.
  14. Profootballreference.com. Top 100-point scorers for the 1949 NFL season.
  15. Nationalfootballteam.com. National teams 1949-52.
  16. Wikipedia. 1950 FIFA world cup.
  17. Our world in data. Life expectancy. Twice as long – life expectancy around the world. 2019. Accessed August 2021.