A new Canadian study shows that even the fittest middle-aged adults can be at risk for cardiovascular disease — and they often show no symptoms. The findings reveal that 11 percent of a sample of middle-aged “master” athletes had significant cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular disease refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke.
The study, published in the journal BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine, emphasizes how important it is for middle-aged athletes to visit the doctor to check for cardiovascular risk, especially if they have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or a family history of cardiovascular disease.
“We all know that exercise is good for us — it can help prevent a range of health problems and diseases, from cancer to depression,” said Barbara Morrison, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student in experimental medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
“However, even if you are really active, our findings suggest that you still can’t outrun your risk factors.”
For the study, UBC researchers followed 798 “masters athletes,” adults aged 35 and older who participate in moderate to vigorous physical activity at least three days a week. The participants included a range of athletes, from runners to cyclists, triathletes, rowers and hockey players.
The researchers asked the participants a range of questions about their health, family history and physical activity levels and also measured their blood pressure levels and waist circumference. Some participants also completed an exercise stress test. Those with abnormal results had further testing, such as a CT coronary angiogram, to determine if they had cardiovascular disease.
Of the 798 athletes, 94 (11 percent) were found to have significant cardiovascular disease. Ten athletes were found to have severe coronary artery disease (a blockage in their artery of 70 percent or greater) despite having no symptoms.
The new findings build on some previous research that suggests athletes have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease than non-athletes of the same age with similar risk factors. Previous research has also found that, compared to non-athletes, master athletes typically have more calcified plaque, which is known to be more stable and less likely to result in a heart attack.
Still, Morrison emphasizes that the findings do not mean master athletes should stop exercising. She does recommend people have regular check-ups, including blood pressure and cholesterol monitoring, especially if they have a family history of heart attack or stroke.
“The good news is that cardiovascular disease is treatable,” she said. “Medication has been proven to reduce mortality risk, and even more so in people who are active.”
Practicing moderation when it comes to exercise is also important, she added. “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,” said Morrison.
“You should never push yourself so hard that you can’t exercise the next day.”
Source: University of British Columbia
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