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Heat Deaths Triple for Football Players Over Past 15 Years

An average of three football players have died from heat-related causes each of the past 15 years, after averaging only roughly one per year before, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.

The study, published online yesterday in the International Journal of Biometerology, examines the conditions surrounding each heat-related death over the past 30 years, including geography, meteorological conditions, and the time of day.

Between 1980-2009, there were 58 well-documented cases of U.S. football players dying from hyperthermia, according to the study. Of those 58 cases, 86 percent of them were players age 18 or below.

Those 58 heat-related deaths were "concentrated in the eastern quadrant of the United States," and occurred most frequently in August. (No surprises there.) Georgia led the way in terms of states, with six heat-related deaths.

But to the researchers' surprise, they discovered that more than half the heat-related deaths occurred during morning practices. Andrew Grundstein, senior study author and assistant professor of geography at the university, says in a video (see below) that he'd have expected deaths to be most frequent during mid-day practices, when the outside temperature reaches its daily peak.

Temperature is only half the battle with heat-related deaths, though. In general, the humidity was also typically higher on days when the players died. If the humidity is high, it may increase heat stress for a player and reduce their ability to cool off, Grundstein explained in an email.

Last August, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new heat guidelines for student-athletes, which call for a 14-day, graduated return to physical activity for athletes playing sports in the heat. The AAP also recommended that coaches should be providing ample water to students in the heat, and in cases of extreme heat, should reschedule practices or move them indoors.

Grundstein wasn't ready to assign complete blame to elevated temperatures and humidity levels, though. He and his colleagues noted that of the 58 who died, 46 had a body mass index above 30 (considered "obese"), and 50 played lineman positions.

Since 1980, it's no secret that football players have only continued to grow larger and larger; thus, weight may be playing a role in these deaths, too.

As a result, Grundstein and his colleagues recommended that "coaches carefully monitor players, particularly large linemen, early in the preseason" or on days with high temperatures or humidity levels. They also echoed the AAP's recommendation of lengthening the initial return-to-play period for student-athletes, to allow them to grow acclimated to physically exerting themselves in the heat.

Here's a short video of Grundstein discussing the study, courtesy of the University of Georgia:

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