Change of Heart

January 19, 2017

Changes in electrical activity, structure, and function of the heart during long-term athletic activity are characterized as “athlete’s heart.” Researchers have studied these changes for years in an attempt to understand them better. Two recent studies have shed more light on the topic.

Athlete’s heart has been examined a great deal with male athletes, but a new investigation suggests that it may look different in women. Specifically, females athletes in the study—especially those who played a dynamic sport—were more likely to have eccentric hypertrophy than men, according to an article from the Times of Malta. Conversely, men are more likely to have concentric left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH) or remodeling.

“Although none of the female athletes with concentric LVH/remodeling in this study showed other features of pathological LVH, these cut-off values [within the study’s results] may be an important starting point for the differential diagnosis with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in a female athlete with cardiac symptoms or abnormal ECG,” the authors wrote. 

Gender isn’t the only factor that influences cardiac changes during sport. Another recent study examined athlete’s heart differences between football linemen and non-linemen.

The investigation used data from the Harvard Athlete Initiative, a source meant to address issues related to exercise physiology and athletes’ health. First-year student-athletes were enrolled in the study. The group included 57 non-linemen and 30 linemen, and they were evaluated during their first season of college football.

The cardiac remodeling seen in the linemen during this study was alarming. The changes included a mild but significant decrease in contractile function along with a thickening of the heart walls. These changes are more similar to the typical cardiac patterns seen among older populations with hypertension and hypertensive heart disease.

Furthermore, before the season began, the criteria for pre-hypertension were met by 29 of the non-linemen and 17 of the linemen. Following the season, 28 non-linemen and 27 linemen met the criteria for pre-hypertension or Stage 1 hypertension.

“Our study confirmed associations between football participation, high blood pressure, and cardiac remodeling,” Aaron Baggish, MD, Associate Director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the study’s senior author, told Medical News Today. “Importantly, our findings suggest that heart remodeling in this population may have some maladaptive, potentially pathologic qualities.

“While this isn’t the first time we’ve seen that different types of sports participation results in varying forms of cardiac remodeling, this is the first time we’ve identified an athletic population that appears to remodel with maladaptive attributes,” he continued. “This type of change to the heart is concerning in this population of young, otherwise healthy athletes and raises questions about long-term health implications.”