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Live as Long as an Olympian

Olympic athletes are not like the rest of us. Most of them live longer, for one thing, as two revealing new studies found. But not all Olympians enjoy that bonus. Certain sports, the studies suggest, may be better than others when it comes to extending lifespan, a finding that has broad implications for those of us who have no expectations of ever being an Olympian.

The more comprehensive of the two studies, both of which appear in the Christmas issue of the British medical journal BMJ, examined the lives — and deaths — of 15,174 male and female Olympic medalists who had competed at Summer or Winter Games since 1896 (the date of the first modern Olympics), employing an extensive database created by Olympic historians and statisticians.

The researchers also gathered comparable birth and death statistics for an age-matched group of non-Olympians from the same nations as the athletes and compared the two groups’ lifespans, looking in particular at how many athletes were alive 30 years after their medal winning performance compared with the numbers of surviving non-Olympians of the same age.

In general, the researchers found, Olympic medalists lived an average of 2.8 years longer than their age-matched peers. More specifically, 8 percent more of the medalists than the non-Olympians were still living 30 years after they had won their medals.

But there were differences by sport. Medalists in endurance sports like marathon running and cycling and in “mixed” sports that involve technique as well as exertion, like cricket, golf and croquet (yes, all once Olympic sports), shared similarly extended lifespans. About 13 percent more of them were alive 30 years after their Olympic success than their non-Olympian counterparts.

However, medalists in power sports, like weight-lifting and the hammer throw, were not as long-lived. Only about 5 percent more of them were alive 30 years after their wins than were non-Olympians of the same age.

These findings echo those of the other study from BMJ. It, too, looked at Olympians and lifespans, but was specifically interested in the longevity differentials between athletes in the more strenuous sports versus those in the less taxing disciplines. Was marathon running, in other words, better than golf or cricket at increasing lifespan, the researchers wondered?

Using information about a smaller and more diverse group of Olympians — 9,889 men and women, including participants as well as medalists — scientists from Leiden University in the Netherlands found that “athletes from disciplines with moderate cardiovascular intensity or high cardiovascular intensity were similar,” in terms of their lifespans, to “athletes from disciplines with low cardiovascular intensity.”

Cyclists, rowers, runners, cricketers and golfers who competed at the Olympics all enjoyed similar lifespans.

But athletes from contact sports or sports that involved frequent crashes and collisions, like rugby and bobsledding, had shorter relative lifespans than the other Olympians.

The implications of the findings of the two studies for everyday, recreational athletes are at once cautionary and encouraging, said David M. Studdert, a professor at the University of Melbourne who co-authored the larger study. On the one hand, his team’s results suggest that “the cardiovascular and health benefits of endurance and mixed sports are greater” than the health benefits of power sports, at least in terms of longevity.

But hammer throwers and other power athletes generally did live longer than non-Olympians, he points out.

Even more heartening is the second study’s conclusion. “People tend to think the more the better when it comes to sports,” says Frouke Engelaer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Leiden and a study co-author. “However, we have found that within a group of people who are fit already, this does not apply.”

High-intensity competitive activity was in fact no better than much less strenuous pursuits at increasing lifespans.

“You don’t have to take the effort to do intense rowing,” Mr. Engelaer said. “Playing golf is just as good for your survival.”

Of course, there are caveats. Neither study assessed whether the Olympians remained physically active over the years, an important consideration. In some studies of former collegiate athletes, those who became sedentary and took to their couches after graduation lived no longer than people who had never participated in college sports.

The new studies also looked at Olympians who competed, by and large, before the era of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, Dr. Studdert said. These substances may prove to have impacts, probably deleterious, on lifespan.

And obviously, most Olympians have resources denied to the rest of us, including access to world-class physicians and, potentially, loads of money through endorsements and other deals. Interestingly, though, Dr. Studdert and his colleagues found no difference in longevity between gold medalists and those who had won silver or bronze, although presumably the monetary gains between the groups would differ.

So fundamentally the message remains clear. “We can’t all be medalists,” Dr. Studdert said, “but many of us can manage regular exercise, and that will probably help us live just about as long as those sporting superstars.”

Golf, by the way, returns to the Olympics in 2016.

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