30 August 2016

Athletes who peak early – do not live as long


New research from the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of Copenhagen and the Dutch Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing reveal that Olympic athletes with an extraordinarily high physical performance level at an early age die before athletes who peak later in life.

Three weeks of Olympic games in Rio are over, and we witnessed top-athletes setting new records. But how does an Olympic top-performance affect athletes’ life expectancy? This is something researchers from the Center for Healthy Ageing have examined, and the study has just been published in the internationally renowned journal, Ageing. It is the first time researchers have been able to show a connection between physical performance and life expectancy in humans.

Early top-performances come at a price

“We all know athletes who fall ill, have accidents and even die during training or competitions. However, in addition to these direct consequences, our data show that there are long-term costs as well. Performing at top-level early in life appears to affect the number of years athletes have left to live,” Professor Rudi Westendorp from the Center for Healthy Aging and the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen explains.

Researchers have analysed obtained results and life expectancy for more than 1,000 athletes who partook in the Olympic games from 1896 to the Berlin Games in 1936. The athletes competed in 58 different disciplines and the researchers have examined at what age the athletes peaked. The study reveals that athletes who peaked at a relatively young age had a 17% increased mortality rate compared to athletes who peaked when they were older.

The very best male athletes who both peaked at an early age and performed extraordinarily had five years less to live than athletes who peaked later in life and who did not perform extraordinarily.

The difference in life expectancy is not a direct price you pay for intensive training and fierce competition. Instead, it relates to the underlying biologic mechanisms that help a person reach their physical high at an early age. The study points out that athletes whose body enables them to perform at a high level from an early age also age quicker. This and other studies of athletes’ life expectancy indicate that growth and sex hormones play a decisive role.

Moderate exercise throughout life is healthy

“The results of the study also contain a more general message to the public: sports are healthy, especially if you exercise slowly and continually. That appears to be the most successful strategy for a long and healthy life. Take your time, but keep it up, and remember that it’s never too late to start,” says Rudi Westendorp.

Researchers point to the need for further biomedical research into the mechanisms that explain the connection between life expectancy and reaching a physical peak-performance at an early age.

The research conducted at the Center for Health Aging is supported by Nordea-fonden.

Professor Rudi Westendorp
Mobile phone: +45 2296 3141