Saturday, March 13, 2010

Do football players die younger than the rest of us?

I was wandering around the 'Net this week when I ran into a report that pro football players die significantly younger than the general public, and that each year a pro stays in the game takes several years off his life. You can read such reports here, here and here, some written by doctors and others quoting studies by doctors. The article from Newsmax starts with this paragraph.

It is not a widely disseminated, downloaded or discussed fact that the average life expectancy for all pro football players, including all positions and backgrounds, is 55 years. Several insurance carriers say it is 51 years.

Wow, that's written by doctors and backed up by insurance companies. It must be true. Except that other doctors say it's 59.

I know a little about life expectancy from teaching statistics and this set my spider sense tingling. For one thing, people kept quoting different numbers. For another thing, life expectancy in the 50s is what you get in the absolute worst parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and a large part of those numbers being so low is high rates of infant mortality skewing the numbers down. The data for pro sports athletes won't be influenced at all by infant mortality. You have to live past your first birthday to play pro sports.

I don't have the time to compile massive sets of data, so I designed an experiment to see if these numbers had any validity. I took the 1960 rosters from professional football and professional baseball, selected 100 guys from each sport who where born in 1934 or 1935, then checked on Wikipedia to see if they were dead or alive. If a name didn't come up, I went to the Baseball Almanac or I used Wiki first because its search engine is way better. Also, just says "deceased" instead of giving a date of death, and I only had to go there for the most obscure players, a total of three guys.

Since these athletes were between the ages of 24 and 26 half a century ago, we would expect by actuarial probability that some would be dead by now, and of course this is correct. 29 of the 100 NFL veterans born 1934 or 1935 are listed as dead as of March 13, 2010, compared to 30 of 100 MLB players. a completely insignificant difference. The ages at death are slightly different but not that much.

decade NFL MLB

Baseball players who died in this study are more likely to have died after the age of 70, while more football players are somewhat more likely to have died while in their 60s. Even so the average age of death for football players was 63 and baseball players was 64. While these numbers seem low, recall that all the guys on this list will eventually die, and 70% on both lists will be over the age of 74 when they go, so the averages will be over 71 at the absolute minimum, probably several years higher.
If I may critique my own study, it makes sense to do a similar data set for guys born in the mid 1920s and mid 1940s to see if baseball vs. football mortality rates show a greater disparity for those different demographic groups. But this first data set makes the idea that football players have an average life expectancy under 60 to be very far fetched indeed.

To the doctors who put their names on these studies, I'll make you a deal. I won't perform any surgeries or prescribe any drugs, and you should stick to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, because it turns out math is hard for some of us.

But not me.


info said...

I likes you stats. I do wonder if the mortality rates would change as the birth years come closer to the present day.

I mean, as the preferred size of the players, the incidence of steroid use, and the type of injuries increased?

Has the game become more dangerous over the years, with more crushing injuries? Or has it become safer due to better equipment?

Sank U!

Karlacita! said...


I'm supposed to have a web-wide avatar attached to that address, but I guess not!

Info is me!

Matty Boy said...

Those are very fair questions. If we took two data sets were everybody on the list should be between 64 and 66, the average age at death must go down, but we should expect a lot more survivors. In the opposite direction, if the list is made up of people born in 1924 and 1925, we should have less survivors and higher average age at death.

Using baseball players as the control group may not be perfect, since they are also subject to bumps and bruises, but not at the rate football players get injured.

I'll probably do both the older group and younger group studies later this week. This is exactly the kind of problem that gnaws at me until I get it done.

I sort of wish making a million bucks was the kind of problem that gnaws at me until I get it done, but I think we know it isn't and it never will be.

I iz a blogger, and we iz po!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thanks for doing that homework assignment. I thought it odd that Johnnie Unitas died in his 60's, I think, maybe a little older but the obit I read said "cancer". He was never on steroids to my knowledge. It is true, however, drugs would impact an athletes longevity. A Raiders talent I watched even though I was a Redskins fan died young because of steroid abuse. I can't remember his name but I was sorry for his family when he died young. That would also bring the average age down. Let's hope the NFL cleans up the league and these players live longer. I wouldn't trust any data you get from an insurance company . . .ever! Thanks for the post Matty.

Matty Boy said...

People dying before they reach 70 is not that rare. People dying before they reach 60 is.

Both Lyle Alzado and John Matuszak played for the Raiders, used steroids and died young. But it's important to remember that correlation is not causation and sequence is not consequence.

Jim said...

While I agree with your over-all questioning about the pro-football mortality rates, I believe my data provides the most accurate information that is available for anyone to critique. lists 99% the pro-football deaths from 1920 to the present day. This is well over 5,400 players. While data is still being confirmed for the other 1%, I now have the average death age at 68 years old. The 51-55 yr numbers that people have been throwing around all these years is totally off.
I do not know the death rates for obese players, drug over-dose or any other manner of death. Just a blanket statement that the average pro football player dies at the ripe old age of 68.

Matty Boy said...

Jim, I work a lot from Monday through Thursday, but this weekend I will look at your data set and see what can be culled from it. 68 was the national average for men back in the 1960s, but now that is up to 78 today. I'll see what the data says both by deaths per death year and deaths per birth year.

Thanks for stopping by.

Billy Bob said...

if you take out the deaths that occur before age 18, how would the lifespan average be affected? That is, would that affect the average and if so, to what amount?

Billy Bob said...

if you take out the deaths that occur before age 18, how would the lifespan average be affected? That is, would that affect the average and if so, to what amount?

Matthew Hubbard said...

Hi, Billy Bob. There is no reason to "remove" the people who die before 18 because I am only looking at the pro game and no one can make it to the pros before 18.