·         An analysis of lifespan durations and causes of death for US Olympic athletes shows they live about five years longer than the rest of the population.
·         Elite competitors gain about two years of life from reduced cardiovascular disease risk and one and a half from diminished cancer risk.
·         The study suggests that intense training during younger years can prolong people’s lifespans. 

Although people often associate exercise with longer, healthier lives, researchers still haven’t provided convincing evidence that physical-limit pushing training regimens extend lifespan. Along those lines, world class US Olympic athletes spend roughly a quarter of their lives exerting their maximum efforts to abide by excruciating workout and dietary schedules. So, what does it do for their life expectancies, and how do their lifespans compare to people who don’t adhere to extreme workout routines?

Antero and colleagues published a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showing that American Olympic athletes live about five years longer than the general population. The research team from the Institute for Research in Medicine and Epidemiology of Sports in Paris provides an analysis of causes of death, indicating that reduced cardiovascular disease and cancer risk precipitate longer average lifespans in these athletes. Findings from the study may help us understand how intense routines of physical exertion during people’s younger years can prolong their lives later on.

Olympic Athletes Live Substantially Longer

The French research team wanted to test the idea that elite athletes live longer than most people. To do so, Antero and colleagues looked at the dates of birth, death, and causes of death for 8124 US Olympians.

Based on 2309 deaths observed (225 women, 2084 men), US Olympians lived 5.1 years longer than the general population. When Antero and colleagues broke it down by sex, their investigation of the Olympians’ life histories showed that males and females had about a 20% increase and a 13% increase in median lifespan duration, respectively. 

(Antero et al., 2021 | British Journal of Sports Medicine) The median survival substantially increased for male and female Olympians. Male elite athletes showed a 20% increase in median survival, while females showed a 13% upsurge (Figure A). The probability of death diminished for Olympians (green area) compared to the general population (grey area) as shown in Figure C. These findings provide strong evidence that intense training in younger years significantly enhances lifespan for Olympic athletes.

Olympians’ Reduced Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer Risks Extend Life

To get a better idea of what contributes to elite athletes’ extended lifespans, Antero and colleagues analyzed the primary causes of death in the top-notch competitors and the general population. They found that, on average, a lower cardiovascular disease risk contributed to an extra 1.8 years of life in female athletes and 2.3 years among men. What’s more, the reduced risks for cancer conferred an additional 1.1 years in female competitors and 1.6 years on average among men, suggesting that reduced risks for these conditions drive Olympian longevity.

(Antero et al., 2021 | British Journal of Sports Medicine) Increased Olympian lifespans stem from years saved from diseases like cardiovascular ailments and cancer. As years pass, the diseases most likely to cause death include cardiovascular disease (red line) and cancer (green line) shown in Figure A. The number of years saved for each of these diseases is higher than other causes of death for male Olympic athletes (B) and female Olympians (C). 

Interestingly, Olympic training didn’t mitigate neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s to extend the lives of the world class athletes. In other words, the researchers’ data indicate that the rigorous training routines of Olympic athletes provide no neuroprotective effect against these age-related neurological disorders.

Protective Effects from Reduced Inflammation

The findings here beg the question of what it is about rigorous physical training that promotes the extension of athletes’ lifespans. One proposal that the French research team suggests is that exercise dampens inflammation throughout the body. The lasting anti-inflammatory effects of intense training help combat age-related diseases associated with inflammation like cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Socioeconomic Factors May Skew the Findings

Limitations of the study included socioeconomic factors for the athletes, like having better access to healthcare, that were not factored into comparing them with the general population. By somehow integrating these social elements into future analyses, researchers can determine to what extent exercise contributes to lifespan extension.

Which Sports Are the Best for Longevity?

Another major limitation of the article is that it does not venture into exploring how individual sports affect aging. It is plausible that different sports have greatly different effects on aging, such as those that are the most aerobic. Also, the body types of the athletes can change by sport, so it would also be interesting to understand whether there is a link between the body type of athletes and lifespan.

Can NMN Drive a Solid Workout Routine? 

To get a leg up on starting a rigorous exercise routine, people can turn to supplementation with the molecule nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN). A study from Liao and colleagues shows that NMN boosts aerobic capacity, muscles’ ability to utilize oxygen for energy production, in amateur runners. As such, taking NMN to enhance exercise capabilities might be a motivating factor for maintaining a challenging exercise routine to potentially extend one’s lifespan.