Mortality and health-related habits in 900 Finnish former elite athletes and their brothers

Br J Sports Med. 2018 Jan;52(2):89-95. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-098206. Epub 2017 Nov 10.


Background: There is conflicting evidence on the associations between participation in vigorous sports, health habits, familial factors and subsequent mortality. We investigated all-cause mortality and health-related behaviour among former elite athletes and their brothers.

Methods: The mortality of Finnish male former elite athletes, who had represented Finland between 1920 and 1965 (n=900) and their age-matched brothers (n=900), was followed from the time when athlete started an elite athlete career until 31 December 2015. The age-adjusted HRs were calculated by a paired Cox proportional hazards model. In 2001, surviving participants (n=199 athletes and n=199 age-matched brothers) reported their self-rated health (SRH), physical activity, alcohol consumption and smoking habits in the questionnaire.

Results: During the total follow-up period, 1296 deaths (72% of the cohort) occurred. The age-adjusted HRs for all-cause mortality in former athletes was 0.75 (95% CI 0.65 to 0.87, P<0.001) compared with their age-matched brothers. Median age at death was 79.9 years for endurance, 75.9 years for mixed sports and 72.2 years for power sports athletes, and 77.5, 73.7 and 72.2 years for their age-matched brothers, respectively. In 2001, compared with their brothers, former athletes smoked less (P<0.001), were more physically active (P<0.05) and rated their health more often as very good (P<0.05).

Conclusions: Former elite athletes are more physically active, smoke less, have better self-rated health and live longer than their brothers. Genetic differences between athletes and brothers, aerobic training for endurance elite sports and a healthier lifestyle may all contribute to reduced mortality.

Keywords: athlete; cohort study; health.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alcohol Drinking
  • Athletes*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Exercise
  • Finland
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mortality*
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Siblings*
  • Smoking
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult