It is acknowledged that competitive sports have unique health benefits and risks, and the effect of sports on life-span health among elite athletes has received increasing attention. However, supporting scientific data are sparse and do not represent modern athletes. This study aimed to assess holistic life-span health and health-related quality-of-life (HRQL) among current and former National Collegiate Athletic Association student-athletes (SAs). A population-based sample of 496 university students and alumni (age 17-84 years), including SAs and an age-matched and sex-matched nonathlete (NA) control group took part in the study. Participants completed anonymous, self-report questionnaires. We measured the Short-Form 12 (SF-12) physical and mental component HRQL scores and cumulative lifetime experience and relative risk of treatment for joint, cardiopulmonary, and psychosocial health concerns. Older alumni (age 43+ years) SAs reported greater joint health concerns than NAs (larger joint summary scores; P = .04; Cohen d = 0.69; probability of clinically important difference [pCID] = 77%; treatment odds ratio [OR] = 14.0, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.6, 126). Joint health for current and younger alumni SAs was similar to that for NAs. Older alumni reported greater cardiopulmonary health concerns than younger alumni (summary score P < .001; d = 1.05; pCID = 85%; OR = 5.8, 95% CI = 2.0, 16) and current students (P 99.5%; OR = 7.1, 95% CI = 3.3, 15), but the risk was similar for SAs and NAs. Current SAs demonstrated evidence of better psychosocial health (summary score P = .006; d = -0.52; pCID = 40%) and mental component HRQL (P = .008; d = 0.50; pCID = 48%) versus NAs but similar psychosocial treatment odds (OR = 0.87, 95% CI = 0.39, 1.9). Psychosocial health and mental component HRQL were similar between alumni SAs and NAs. No differences were seen between SAs and NAs in physical component HRQL.
The SAs exhibited significant, clinically meaningful evidence of greater joint health concerns later in life, comparable cardiopulmonary health, and differences in life-span psychosocial health and HRQL profiles compared with NAs. These data provide timely evidence related to a compelling public issue and highlight the need for additional study of life-span health among modern athletes.