Studying Elite Athletes: Do They Live Longer? (HealthNews)

There is a great understanding of an athlete’s competitive career, but what are their post-career outcomes? Research has shown that sports participation has a positive health impact on individuals but can participate in sports at an elite level increase longevity? This article explores the impact of longevity on high-performance elite-level athletes.

Elite athletes and longevity

A study examining all-cause mortality in former athletes, specifically cardiovascular and cancer-specific mortality, shows that elite athletes live longer than the general population. Although male athletes have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, power sports athletes’ all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality rates were not much different from the general population.

Furthermore, endurance athletes’ cancer mortality was not significantly different from the general population. No differences were seen in nervous system disorders and mental illnesses between elite athletes and the general population.

Additional studies examining professional athletes in the United States showed that elite athletes live longer than the general population. A study that examined U.S. Olympians found that female and male U.S. Olympic athletes live five years longer than the general population. This study concluded that these athletes had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, which directly impacted their increased longevity.

Limitations were seen in many of the studies on longevity in elite athletes. While there is a comprehensive understanding of an athlete’s health and performance while they are participating in a sport, there is limited data on their post-career outcomes.

Thus, further research is needed to look at the mechanisms that may affect mortality risk to gain a better understanding of both elite and non-elite populations. The current studies show that participation in an elite sport generally leads to increased longevity.

full article


  1. Sports Med Open. Do Elite Athlete Live Longer? A Systematic Review of Mortality and Longevity in Elite Athletes.
  2. Sports Medicine. Health Consequences of an Elite Sporting Career: Long-Term Detriment or Long-Term Gain? A Meta-Analysis of 165,00 Former Athletes.
  3. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Female and male US Olympic athletes live 5 years longer than their general counterparts: a study of 8124 former US Olympians.
  4. German Journal of Exercise and Sport Research. Defining “elite” status in sport: from chaos to clarity.
  5. Houston Methodist. Medical Conditions in Athletes.

Interesting, but doesn’t really answer the question of whether training really hard is good for you or not. Elite athletes are a small selection of the general population and this selection excludes a bunch of people that are way below average and could never be elite athletes no matter how hard they train.

I doubt training as hard as an olympic athlete is good for you in the long run. I don’t think this study answers that question.


It is an interesting question. Peter Attia had a guest on his podcast who said too much high-intensity had a negative impact. I interviewed Ben Levine, MD (U of T SW Medical Center) earlier this year who said the opposite (Wise Athletes podcast). What IS clear is that I am not training that hard any longer regardless of the longevity implications.


Yes - I think the risk of most of us of over exercising (aside from the possible repetitive stress type injuries caused by doing one sport/activity) is pretty minimal. We have a long way to go before we start bumping up to the negatives of exercise.


Most challenges are initially helpful then plateau and finally are harmful. I see this as the HIF 1 alpha, NRF 2, NF kappa B respond spectrum to hypoxic challenges.

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May I recommend: “The Art of Plain Talk / by Rudolf Flesch; forward by Lyman Bryson Hardcover – January 1, 1946”? :wink:

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Many if not most elite athletes, @RapAdmin, do not quit working out when their elite careers are over, unless of course they are hobbled by injury. Fitness enthusiasts often remain enthusiastic well into their senior years. There is also a negative correlation between exercise and cognitive decline. Currently, the only stay against Alzheimer’s is physical activity.


This is a page where I explain the relevance of this:

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Thanks for this. It’s a very deep subject and I’m not sure what to do but exercise.

Your post did not go into the details of the response to exercise as much as the response to oxygen. I’m a little scared of oxygen. If I am in zone 2 for 20 minutes, then I feel great for about an hour. Maybe you could explain this response.

The response to exercise in cells operates in the same pathways as the response to hypoxia.

John, have you found any information about lactate (from anaerobic production of ATP in fast twitch muscles) acting as a signal for health promoting adaptation?

Its not something i have studied.

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I’m not so sure. I see plenty of people (my coaching clients) exercising excessively. Maybe 10% of them.

None of this surprises me. As a lifelong endurance athlete who has competed at dozens of marathons and 9 ironman triathlons over a 40+ year span, and who has also engaged in consistent strength and mobility training over that period of time, and has coached endurance athletes for 25 +/- years while also operating a gait analysis lab/clinic for 10 years alongside a sports physician, it’s clear to me without looking at any research at all but just my own experience with myself and others - there is a very distinct threshold where too much of a good thing, isn’t a good thing. That’s for both the plumbing (the “motor,” so to speak) and the chassis (e.g. musculoskeletal health) - both can and are usually impacted. I do believe there is something to the extreme exercise hypothesis…and while there are clear benefits to the kind of hormetic stress that intense exercise creates (as well as the kind of exercise typical of endurance sports, e.g. steady upper z2 efforts), there is a limit at which it might have a reverse effect. All of this, for me personally, means that at 63, how I train now is very different than how I trained at 30. I do lots of variable intensity in my running - sprinting, etc…and generally avoid upper/steady z2. It’s also why I love the mountain bike (vs the road) for the variable efforts that are automatically built in to that kind of riding. And of course, strength training ( to maintain and even build muscle and strength) along with mobility training, is the central focus of my daily exercise routine.


Thanks. This makes sense. The key seems to be recovery. Only doing what can be recovered from and adapted to. Going beyond that leads to digging a hole (grave?). Chronic stress hormones from over-training are very hard on the metabolic health of the body. Many people here (and Vince Giuliano) believe chronic inflammation is one of the core factors behind accelerated aging. Chronic high cortisol can lead to chronic inflammation.


Thanks, Joe. No question that recovery is a big piece, although not likely to be the only piece.

One conversation I often had with clients in our gait lab, was on the topic of scar tissue and the development of it in response to microtrauma. Which of course we all know is a double-edged sword.

I’d point out that when they’d cut themselves, very obviously a scab would develop during the healing process. Depending on the severity and quality of the tissue involved, as healing took place and the scab formed, what would be left at the end phase of that healing was a scar of some sort. The quality of that tissue/skin around the scar and the scar itself would be less elastic and obviously more fibrotic. Which would then mean in simple terms that it wouldn’t stretch quite as far or as easily as the tissue that hadn’t scabbed and thus scarred.

Then the conversation would turn to discussing this idea that the connective tissue inside of us that we CAN’T see as easily as that cut, also acts the same way. But because we can’t see it, we don’t think of it that way. Hence some of the reason for repetitive overuse injuries that many/most endurance athletes experience. Repeated microtrauma, less than optimal healing of that tissue before it’s again beat up on, and most importantly perhaps…the idea of compensation…and the very real issue of certain tissues being asked to do jobs they weren’t necessarily designed to do, which results in even more trauma to those tissues.

Now imagine the repetitive microtrauma to cardiac muscle from thousands of hours of mid to upper z2, with very little variation in those heartbeats. It’s not a pretty picture. I think, and this is my opinion…it’s less about the brief bouts of increased high intensity, and much more about the elevated steady-state hovering just below LT. That may result in some of that increased scarring from, again, repetitive microtrauma.

Naturally, all of that is happening over many years while we’re also aging, so connective tissue is at the same time, becoming less elastic and more fibrotic. It’s like a perfect storm as we age.

We see this inside and outside the body, but very often, it’s the less obvious results that aren’t or can’t be easily seen, that is the most important.

I do think this speaks in part to the extreme exercise hypothesis…and again, I don’t claim to be a laboratory researcher or to have spent umpteen hours going over whatever little research there actually is, but I’ve spent my entire adult life watching, listening, and observing these changes…in myself and in others I’ve worked with…

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You’re not wrong about this. Repetitive damage and repair to the cardiac muscle from ultra endurance training can lead to myocardial fibrosis and arrhythmia.


Why is it that recovery time is so much worse as we age? Is it mitochondrial dysfunction? I really don’t understand that mechanism.

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There you go. I hadn’t seen this study, but did immediately notice Dr. O’Keefe’s name on it…

Thanks for sharing.

It’s a great question. I would think that it mirrors the aging process. Depending on the theory of aging you’ve latched on to, that might explain some of it. Certainly, its a plethora of events (e.g. worsening) occurring physiologically…

I think it is prudent to point out that it’s obviously variable, to some degree, from one person to the next. I’ve seen this a lot with coached athletes, in that depending on a variety of factors such as the overall quality of their diet, how we’ll they’re sleeping, what they do for work and the relative (bad) stress their dealing with routinely…as well as (gulp) their mindset as it relates to these factors…

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