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Can Being an Athlete in Youth Protect against Type 2 Later in Life?

Former elite athletes, now in their 60s-80s, compared to their current non-athlete peers…. 

In a recent study, 392 Finnish former elite athlete males were age and area matched with 207 controls to observe if there was a difference in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The mean ages for the former athletes were 72.7 ± 6.1 years, and the controls were 71.6 ± 5.6 years. The risk of type 2 diabetes was measured by a 2 hour, 75g, oral glucose tolerance test, and a self-reported questionnaire was answered to measure the participant’s current activity level. This activity level was measured as "leisure-time physical activity," or LTPA, and converted to "metabolic equivalent hours," or MET-h.

The results showed a significantly lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes for the former athletes compared to their age-matched controls (OR 0.72, 95% CI 0.53, 0.98). Additionally, a correlation was found between current increased LTPA and a further protection against type 2 diabetes, across both groups (OR 0.98, 95% CI 0.97, 0.99 per 1 MET-h/week). As would be expected, the former athletes also displayed a lower risk for having impaired glucose tolerance than the non-athlete controls (OR 0.58, 95% CI 0.38, 0.87).

This study suggest that the previous elite athletes have increase protection against developing type 2 diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance later in life. 

Practice Pearls: 
  • Former elite athletes had a lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life compared to age-matched controls.
  • These former athletes were also found to have less risk of impaired glucose tolerance compared to the control group.
  • Increased past and current levels of activity seem to correlate with greater protection against type 2 diabetes.

Diabetologia, November 2013