Here I'll point out a review of dozens of studies shows that the balance of evidence points to greater longevity in successful professional athletes. This is one part of a still open question on exercise and long-term health: is it actually better to exercise much more than the recommended moderate levels? There is conflicting evidence from various different types of epidemiological study. The data on professional athletes unfortunately does not show causation, so it may well be that they live longer because more robust individuals tend become professional athletes. In that case had they chosen a different life path, and kept up with regular moderate exercise, they would have had much the same higher than average life expectancy.
Understanding of an athlete's lifespan is limited with a much more sophisticated knowledge of their competitive careers and little knowledge of post-career outcomes. In this review, we consider the relationship between participation at elite levels of sport and mortality risk relative to other athletes and age- and sex-matched controls from the general population. Our objective was to identify, collate, and disseminate a comprehensive list of risk factors associated with longevity and trends and causes of mortality among elite athletes.
Fifty-four peer-reviewed publications and three articles from online sources met the criteria for inclusion. An overwhelming majority of studies included in this review reported favorable lifespan longevities for athletes compared to their age- and sex-matched controls from the general population. In fact, only two studies reported lower lifespan longevities in athletes relative to the controls. Although our overall understanding of modifiable and non-modifiable factors that contribute to mortality risk in elite athletes remains limited, in part due to methodological and data source inconsistencies, some trends emerged from our investigation. In particular, our review supports previous conclusions that aerobic and mixed-sport athletes have superior longevity outcomes relative to more anaerobic sport athletes. In addition, playing position and weight, as well as education and race, appeared to be consistent indicators of mortality risk, whereas other mechanisms such as handedness, precocity, and names and initials appeared to be less consistent and/or examined.
As a variety of confounders may impact longevity, the reasons for the differences in lifespans between elite athletes and the general population are likely to be multifactorial. There are several possible explanations of increased survival in the elite athlete cohort; namely, participation in higher volumes of exercise training leading to higher physical fitness levels, the likelihood that elite athletes are comprised of the healthiest and fittest individuals, and the maintenance of active and healthy lifestyles later in life. The extents to which these confounders contribute to mortality risk are still largely unknown however, as survival statistics may undermine the interplay of complex socioeconomic factors. For example, medical care accessibility made available by higher income may improve the life expectancy of athletes when compared to other groups. Further, plenty of corroborating evidence suggests health-care services alone do not result in improved health outcomes, but a variety of social factors such as education and employment produce these widespread biases in health. As a result, the historical investigations of elite athletes and longevity outcomes need to be cautiously interpreted and discussed in the contexts of a variety of possible influential factors of mortality.