What Should an Athlete Know About Heart Disease?

sprinter in starting blocks

The heart is capable of beating 100,000 times a day along with pumping 2,000+ gallons of oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. However, over time our personal lifestyle changes our heart’s capabilities. More specifically, an athlete’s body is more apt to becoming more efficient. That’s why athletes are prone to developing subtle changes in the development in the heart. But first, let’s look into the benefits of exercise on the heart in the average person. 

Exercise has a fairly wide definition in the status quo. As defined by Kaiser Permanente, exercise is any activity that is vigorous to raise your heart rate. Surely, exercise is daunting because it’s definitely difficult to find time in our days to work, eat, relax, and exercise. Fortunately, however, 30 minutes of exercise is enough to keep a heart healthy and efficient while lowering the chance of getting heart disease. Additionally, regular exercise has the benefits listed below:

What are some benefits of regular exercise?

  • Keeps your weight down.
  • Improves your mood.
  • Lowers your risk for some types of cancer.
  • Improves your balance.
  • Reduces your risk of osteoporosis by increasing your bone mass.
  • Gives you more energy.
  • Helps you sleep better.

In comparison, an athlete’s heart is even more efficient. An intense athletic training regime places the heart under stressful conditions which train the heart to become more efficient in pumping blood. The training of the heart can lead to, “small increases in size both of the pumping chamber (ventricle) and filling chamber (atrium), as well as proportionate small increases in the thickness of the heart muscle” as noted by Stanford Health Care. Undoubtedly, exercise offers immense benefits to not only our heart but the rest of our body. But let’s now delve deeper into what heart disease means for an athlete.

There are several types of heart diseases that impact the different parts of the heart. One of the most common cause of death in an athlete happens to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). HCM is an inherited trait that created thickened muscle walls which have the potential to disrupt the heart’s electrical system. Athletes with HCM may have a history of syncope (fainting), palpitations (racing feeling in chest) and a family history of sudden cardiac death. These symptoms should not be taken lightly as the consequences can be devastating.

With this in mind, there are two key take-aways for athletes concerned about heart disease. The first being that heart disease is very uncommon in young men and women, including athletes. Unfortunately, whether you’re an athlete or not, the probability of heart disease significantly rises as we get older, especially after age 65 (The American Heart Association). In addition to age, a patient’s personal and/or family history of diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and tobacco also play influential roles in the development of heart disease. The second is screening. Methodical screening should be considered for an athlete. Some initial screenings include: patient history, physical examination, and electrocardiogram tests.

When an athlete has symptoms (such as chest pain, shortness of breath out of proportion to exercise, dizziness/passing out, or palpitations) or any abnormalities on electrocardiogram, cardiovascular evaluation is reasonable. Further tests such as an echocardiogram (simple ultrasound of the heart), treadmill test, and heart monitor will better allow the physician and athlete to feel comfortable in their exercise. These key takeaways indicate that with proper precautions and limited testing, there may little to worry about in relation to heart disease in an athlete. We all hear of stories of athletes collapsing and dying at young age. Almost all of these cases are preventable!!

If you are an athlete and have any symptoms or concerns, our providers at Modern Heart and Vascular can be your cardiovascular partners to give you the peace of mind and clearance for sports.

If you’d like to learn more about our practice, read our providers’ bios.

This article does not provide medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you need cardiovascular care, please call us at 832-644-8930. 

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