Just because you’re ultra-fit in middle age doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take cardiovascular risk screening to heart.
New research from the University of British Columbia in Canada has found that about one in 10 athletes aged 35 and over have cardiovascular disease.
Coronary artery disease – a major cause of heart attack – was the most common among the research participants.
“You can’t outrun your risk factors,” lead study author Barbara Morrison told The New Daily.
“Just because you are an athlete doesn’t make you immune to having high cholesterol or high blood pressure.”
The 798 participants were all considered “masters athletes”, who engaged in moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity at least three days a week.
They mostly participated in one or more sports, including running, cycling, hockey, triathlon and rowing.
About half had completed either a half or full marathon in their lifetime.
As part of the study, the athletes underwent numerous tests, including an ECG, blood pressure and cholesterol checks, and had their waist circumference measured.
Researchers also asked the athletes about their general health, family history and physical activity levels. Some participants had an exercise stress test. Anyone with abnormal results had further testing for cardiovascular disease, such as a coronary angiogram.
More than 90 of the participants had clinically significant cardiovascular disease, with 10 of those found to have a blockage of 70 per cent or more without any noticeable symptoms, Ms Morrison said.
“Regardless of one’s fitness status, if you’re an elite athlete or a recreational athlete, you should have your cardiovascular risk factors checked,” she said.
The Heart Foundation’s chief medical adviser Professor Garry Jennings said the study was a timely reminder to check up on your heart health.
“While physical activity protects against heart disease, people engaging in strenuous activities over the age of 35 years are not immune from coronary heart disease. Especially, if they have risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, are smokers or have diabetes,” he said.
“Everyone over age 45 – or 35 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – should have their FRS checked.”
FRS stands for Framingham Risk Score. It is a calculation to predict disease risk, based on a person’s age, sex, family history, and other health determinants such as smoking status and medications.
“This is particularly important for those participating in strenuous activities such as running marathons,” Professor Jennings said.
His advice to anyone participating in strenuous activities is to be well prepared.
“Almost everyone can safely participate in events provided they are properly prepared and stay within their limitations,” he said.
“Those who run into trouble are more often people who do too much too soon, ignore symptoms, do not have regular health checks.”
Professor Jennings recommends talking to your doctor about having a heart check if you are starting a new or high-intensity fitness plan.
“People who have had a heart attack are also encouraged to resume exercise but should do so on the advice of their doctor.”
Ms Morrison added that, at a bare minimum, people who did strenuous exercise should have their blood pressure and lipid levels checked.
She said that while exercise had proven health benefits, many people were better off not going to extremes.
“There is no evidence suggesting pushing exercise to the limit will make you live longer or your heart stronger,” she said. “But if it is taken to the extreme it may have the potential to do some harm.”
The Masters Athletes Screening Study was published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine on August 9.