A recent UBC study highlights how important it is for middle-aged athletes to have their doctor check their cardiovascular risk factors, especially if they have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a family history of cardiovascular disease.
For the study, researchers followed 798 “masters athletes”—adults aged 35 and older who engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity at least 3 days per week. The participants included a range of athletes—runners, cyclists, triathletes, rowers, and hockey players.
Participants were asked questions about their health, family history, and physical activity levels. They also had their blood pressure checked and waist circumference measured. Some participants also took part in an exercise stress test. Those with abnormal results underwent further testing, such as a CT coronary angiogram, to determine if they had cardiovascular disease.
Of the 798 athletes, 94 (12%) were found to have significant cardiovascular disease. Ten participants were found to have severe coronary artery disease (blockage in their artery of 70% or greater) despite not having any symptoms.
This study’s findings build on previous research that found masters athletes have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease than non-athletes of the same age with similar risk factors. However, previous research has also found that, compared to non-athletes, masters athletes typically have more calcified plaque, which is known to be more stable and less likely to cause a heart attack.
While the findings may seem alarming, Barbara Morrison, the study’s lead author and a PhD student in experimental medicine at UBC, emphasized that it doesn’t mean masters athletes should stop exercising. She recommends people see their doctor for regular checkups, including blood pressure and cholesterol monitoring, especially if they have a family history of heart attack or stroke, and exercise in moderation. When taken to the extreme, exercise may have the potential to do harm.
Coauthored by researchers at SportsCardiologyBC, BC Children’s Hospital, and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, the study was funded by Mitacs Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The study is titled “Assessment of cardiovascular risk and preparticipation screening protocols in masters athletes: The Masters Athlete Screening Study (MASS): A cross-sectional study,” and is published in BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine.
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