A number of studies have shown that elite athletes have a significantly lower mortality and longer life expectancy than the general population. It is unclear as to whether this is due to physical activity and training for fitness versus other mechanisms, as elite chess players appear to have similar advantages. This study is par for the course, looking at Japanese Olympic participants. Interestingly, it hints at the upper end of the dose-response curve for physical activity, in that a longer career as a professional athlete may be detrimental in comparison to lesser degrees of exercise and training.
From this large, retrospective cohort study targeting 3546 Japanese Olympic athletes, we observed significant lower mortality among Olympians compared with the Japanese general population. The overall standardised mortality ratio (SMR) was 0.29. The results were consistent with previous studies conducted in other non-Asian countries, but the SMR was lower than in previous studies. A retrospective cohort study targeting 203 French Olympic rowers reported that the SMR for all causes of death was 0.58. Another retrospective cohort study targeting 2403 French Olympic athletes reported a SMR of 0.49 among women and 0.51 among men. A third retrospective cohort study of 233 Croatian male Olympic medalists reported a SMR of 0.73.
In the analysis by total number of participation in the Olympic Games, significantly higher mortality was observed among those who participated in the Olympics more than twice compared with those who participated only once. The underlying reason for this may be that those who participated in Olympic Games many times may have had long careers as elite athletes. To be continuously successful, they could have been exposed to exercises with high intensity for long periods, which may have led to higher mortality compared with those who participated only once.
We conducted cohort classification by sport discipline according to the nine combinations of static and dynamic intensity of sports disciplines, and demonstrated the association between intensity of sports disciplines and mortality. We did not observe significantly higher mortality among athletes who participated in disciplines of highest static and highest dynamic intensity. This could be explained in part by their exercise habits after retiring from international competitions. Although a study reported that those capable of prolonged vigorous physical exercises lived longer compared with the general population, Olympic athletes involved in sports disciplines with high intensity may not necessarily continue sports activities after retirement. The habit of sports activities after retiring from athletics may have more influence on mortality than the static/dynamic intensity of each sports discipline.