Dec 17, 2020
Study: An Athlete’s Heart Differs Between Men & Women

According to a new study, the hearts of female athletes adapt differently to sports training than their male counterparts.

This new revelation could change the way doctors evaluate women’s heart health, according to a press release from the American Heart Association News.

Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Services

For the new study, researchers at the University of Siena and the Institute of Sports Medicine and Science in Italy compared the hearts of 360 female and 360 male Olympic athletes. They were divided into four groups according to their sport type: skill, such as golf and table tennis; power, including weightlifting and snowboarding; mixed disciplines like soccer and tennis; and endurance, including rowing, swimming, and long-distance running.

Every athlete took part in a clinical exam — an electrocardiogram (ECG) to test the heart’s electrical activity, and an echocardiogram to measure the size and shape of the heart.

The ECGs in women more often showed T-wave inversion, which can signify an underlying heart muscle disease that affects the lower right chamber and carries a risk of sudden death, particularly during exercise. But that finding may not be cause for alarm in female athletes in the absence of symptoms.

Compared to male athletes, women also had proportionately larger right and left ventricles, the heart’s two lower pumping chambers. Women engaged in endurance sports had the biggest increase in the size of the right ventricle and right atrium (the upper chamber), followed by those in mixed disciplines and power sports. Skill sports had the smallest effect on remodeling the right side of the heart. The same held true for the left ventricle and left atrium.

The findings, published this week in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging, show that “a sex-based approach for interpreting the complex features of ‘athlete’s heart’ in women is needed,” said lead author Dr. Flavio D’Ascenzi, an assistant professor of sports cardiology at the University of Siena.

To read the full press release from the American Heart Association about its new study, click here

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