Belgium scientists published a study in 2012 that found repetitious intensive endurance exercise to be a result of the enlargement of the right ventricle which may be directly associated with health hazards including sudden cardia death. The publication caused much debate among medical and sports experts. Recently, medicine physicians at Saarland University decided to test the conclusions of the previous study by closely observing the hearts of elite master endurance athletes. The new study found zero evidence that years of elite-level endurance training posed any harm to the right ventricle over the long term.
Endurance athletes are constantly reported in the media as to have died of sudden cardiac death. You may recall a couple of weeks ago Dutch cyclist Gijs Verdick died a week after suffering from a double heart attack which occurred following a race. Today it is generally known that an enlarged heart is a healthy reaction as the body adjusts itself to the increased stress of regular training. Many studies have recently shown that regular exposure to endurance exercising can actually lead to pathological changes to the heart’s overall structure, which is the same conclusion Belgian cardiologists and sports medicine physicians came to back in 2012. Researchers found a link between extreme exercise and acute enlargement and functional impairment of the right ventricle right after exercising. They were concerned with the reduced amount of functionality they found within the ventricle upon completing a few hours of competitive endurance sport training.
Longitudinal studies have thus been unable to confirm the hypothesis. It has not been proven that exercise-induced arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (or ARVC) following exercise in fact leads to chronic and life-threatening conditions. Scientists at the Saarbrücken Institute of Sports and Preventative Medicine have been observing elite athletes with varying backgrounds, including triathletes, swimmers and football players. During all of their research, has been no indication that supported the Belgium hypothesis.
In order to test the hypothesis directly, 33 elite master athletes with an average age of 47 were compared to a control group of 33 men who were in the same age, size and weight range who had not taken part in endurance exercises. The professional endurance athletes in the observations had been training for about 30 years and continued to do so on average of about 17 hours each week.
The results showed that the professional athletes had both larger and stronger hearts but there was no evidence of lasting damage or impairment to functionality to either ventricle. During the testing, researchers found a way around problems faced by previous investigators.
Cardiac MRI is the best method when it comes to examining the heart; it has not been used for very long and is not used in routine checkups to examine athletes. MRI-based studies will not be common in the future, at least not anytime soon. There just are not MRI monitored studies where patients have been observed for years or decades available to compare tests to. For the time being the best we can do to understand the health of elite master athletes is take a look at the few studies out there that do exist and make our best educational assumptions.
The complete new study was published in Circulation journal.