Health, Injuries, Podcast

Mortality (all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer) and longevity in former elite athletes with prof. Melitta Mcnarry | EP#302

 September 6, 2021

By  Mikael Eriksson


Professor Melitta Mcnarry of Swansea University has recently published a meta-analysis on the health and mortality (all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer) consequences of an elite sporting career. Here, she discusses the findings and the potential implications.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Reasons for conducting the meta-analysis, including questions marks around whether a high amount of exercise might be detrimental rather than beneficial for health and longevity
  • The significantly reduced mortality in elite athletes, in particular endurance athletes and team sport athletes
  • Potential reasons for the reduced mortality
  • The relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and protection against cardiovascular disease
  • Potential reasons for why elite endurance athletes had greatly reduced cardiovascular disease mortality, but no difference compared to the general population for cancer mortality

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04:25 -

  • My name is Melitta Mcnarry and I am a University professor at the University of Wales in the United Kingdom.

    In the last years I have started taking a great interest in the link between different levels of physical activity and all-cause mortality and longevity, which is why I performed a big metaanalysis on the subject.

Background to the study

06:00 -

  • There is obviously massive scientific support to that exercise is hugely beneficial to out health.

    However, there is also quite extensive evidence that suggests that one reaches a ”ceiling” where more physical activity does is no longer add any health benefits and could actually be detrimental to ones health.

    Primarily, two large and well-done studies supports this thesis.

    The activity level ”ceiling” that is suggested is massively exceeded by most elite athletes, which makes them a very interesting group to study in order to get more clarity into this area.

The meta-analysis

10:00 -

  • Elite athletes were defined as athletes that had been active on a national comparative level.
  • The athletes were divided into several groups based on sport: endurance sports, team sports or power/explosive sports.
  • This is one of the first studies that do not only look at all-cause mortality but also investigates cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality specifically.
  • Overall, athletes had an overall lower risk of all-cause mortality (by about 3 years for males and almost 5 years for women, which is quite significant) and mortality from cardiovascular disease.

    However, elite athletes engaged in power sports did not show a lower all-cause mortality or lower cardiovascular mortality.
  • It is hard to say what the reason to this health benefits are, but I do believe that the greater cardiovascular fitness played a massive role.
  • The health effects on cardiovascular disease where actually greater than on overall mortality.

    One could not see any reduced risk for cancer related mortality, but since the cardiovascular related deaths were so substantially reduced, this would ”leave” only cancer related deaths as a major cause of mortality, which why it is difficult to draw age conclusion from this study that physical activity does not reduce risk of cancer.
  • There are, however, several confounding factors that needs to accustomed for, which this study type cannot really answer.

    This is why it is so important to conduct more research on this subject.

Rapid fire questions

34:20 -

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource? The Michelin guide since I am a real ”foodie”!
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? Having a dog!
  • Who is somebody you look up to or has inspired you? My parents!


Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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