SEP 03, 2018 6:00 AM PDT

Even the Fittest Can't Outrun Cardiovascular Disease

WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Williams

Coronary artery disease, a type of cardiovascular disease, is a primary cause of cardiac arrest in athletes over the age of 35. Overall, cardiovascular disease causes 610,000 deaths every year in the United States, accounting for one in every four deaths. Specifically, coronary artery disease is the most common type of cardiovascular disease killing 370,000 people annually. Typically, exercise and a healthy lifestyle lower cardiovascular risk but a recent study published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine has shown that even “master athletes” are not immune to increased cardiovascular risk and cardiovascular disease.

Master athletes refer to adults aged 35 or over who engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity at least three days a week such as runners, cyclists, triathletes and many others. The study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia included a cross-sectional screen of participants age 35 or older from a variety of sports throughout British Columbia, Canada from April 2015 to January 2016. Any individuals with preexisting cardiovascular disease were not included in the analysis. The 798 participants, 62.7 percent male, were asked a range of questions about their health, family history, and physical activity levels. Medical measures such as blood pressure and waist circumference were taken as well as an exercise stress test in some individuals. If any participant had abnormal results, they were further tested for cardiovascular disease with tests such as CT coronary angiogram.

The results showed that 94 of the 798 athletes, 11 percent, had significant cardiovascular disease despite 90 percent of participants having no symptoms. Of those 94 participants, 10 had severe coronary artery disease with a blockage 70 percent or higher in their artery. The study showed that specific screening tools are more likely to predict illness such as coronary artery disease. The Framingham Risk Score exhibited the highest predictive value of any tools observed; this tool is a gender-specific algorithm that estimates the 10-year cardiovascular risk of an individual.

These results build on previous research that found athletes 35 and older have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease than non-athletes with similar age and cardiovascular risk factors. While the risk may be greater in master athletes they do have more calcified plaque, a more stable form that is less likely to dislodge and cause heart attack, than non-athletes. "The good news is that cardiovascular disease is treatable," said Barbara Morrison, the study’s lead author and Ph.D. student in experimental medicine at the University of British Columbia. "Medication has been proven to reduce mortality risk, and even more so in people who are active.“ Individuals should see their doctor regularly for check-ups and monitor blood pressure and cholesterol, especially if there is a family history of heart attack or stroke. In terms of prevention Morrison said, "There is no evidence that pushing exercise to the limit will make you live longer or your heart stronger, but when taken to the extreme, it may have the potential to do harm, you should never push yourself so hard that you can't exercise the next day."

To learn more about coronary artery disease and heart attack watch the video below!


Sources: BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, Canadian Family Physician, Mayo Clinic, Center for Disease Control

About the Author
  • Caitlin holds a doctorate degree in Microbiology from the University of Georgia where she studied Mycoplasma pneumoniae and its glycan receptors. She received her Bachelor's in Biology from Virginia Tech (GO HOKIES!). She has a passion for science communication and STEM education with a goal to improve science literacy. She enjoys topics related to human health, with a particular soft spot for pathogens.
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