A Former Career as a Male Elite Athlete — Does It Protect Against Type 2 Diabetes in Later Life?

Study Questions:

Does a former career as an elite athlete protect males later in life against type 2 diabetes mellitus?


In 2008, 392 former male elite Finnish athletes (mean age 72.7 ± 6.1 years) and 207 controls (mean age 71.6 ± 5.6 years) participated in a clinical study (participation rate, 50.6%). Former athletes were divided into three groups based on their active career sport: endurance, mixed, and power sports. Participants without a history of diabetes (n = 537) underwent a 2-hour 75 g oral glucose tolerance test. Current volume of leisure-time physical activity was determined by self-reported questionnaires and expressed in metabolic equivalent hours (MET-h). Data on reimbursable diabetes medication from participants and nonparticipants were obtained from the register of the Finnish Social Insurance Institution.


Compared with controls, former elite athletes had a significantly lower risk of type 2 diabetes (odds ratio [OR], 0.72; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.53-0.98). The risk of type 2 diabetes decreased with increased leisure time physical activity duration (OR, 0.98; 95% CI, 0.97-0.99 per 1 MET-h/week). Former elite athletes also had a significantly lower risk of impaired glucose tolerance compared to controls (OR, 0.58; 95% CI, 0.38-0.87).


The authors concluded that a former career as an elite athlete protected from both type 2 diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance in later life. In addition, the duration of current leisure time physical activity was inversely associated with the prevalence of type 2 diabetes.


There is little doubt that a moderate amount of regular physical activity helps prevent diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and associated cardiovascular diseases. This study both confirms that current levels of leisure time physical activity are protective against the development of diabetes, and also suggests that a prior career as an elite athlete might be somehow prospectively protective as well. It could be anticipated that selection bias might have played a role in determining which individuals became career elite athletes. Finally, data suggesting that prior participants in the US National Football League are at increased subsequent risk of hypertension, obesity, and metabolic abnormalities might suggest that the type of sport (or, most likely, the body habitus of the athlete) plays an important role in any future protective effect associated with an athletic career.

Clinical Topics: Diabetes and Cardiometabolic Disease, Prevention, Sports and Exercise Cardiology, Hypertension

Keywords: Odds Ratio, Athletes, Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2, Sports, Metabolic Syndrome X, Prevalence, Glucose Intolerance, Glucose Tolerance Test, Selection Bias, Motor Activity, Cardiovascular Diseases, Obesity, Confidence Intervals, Hypertension

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