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What Type of Athletes Are at Greater Risk for Heart Attacks

Posted 1/26/2017 by UHBlog

Do you know the risk factors and warning signs of a heart attack? See us for a screening.

What Type of Athletes Are at Greater Risk for Heart Attacks?

Every so often, you hear about endurance athletes who suffer heart attacks during or immediately following an event. Is there something about endurance sports, such as marathons, mountain biking, triathlons and the like, that puts these athletes at risk for sudden cardiac arrests?

The short answer is no, says cardiologist Trevor Jenkins, MD.

“When we look at studies where there were sudden cardiac deaths in the marathon population, we see it does happen but that its occurrence is very low,” he says.

According to Dr. Jenkins, one study looked at the incidence of cardiac events in runners at the Minneapolis Marathon. Out of approximately 250,000 runners, there were four deaths. Of these, three people had undiagnosed coronary artery disease (CAD).

“Endurance sports aren't what put these people at risks,” he says. “More likely, it's that they didn’t know their personal risk factors. Studies like these show the importance of knowing your personal risks and getting screened before embarking on an exercise program.”

Larger numbers of people are participating in marathons and endurance sports. Because atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is the major cause of heart attacks – contributing to one in three deaths in the U.S. – it stands to reason that some of these athletes will be at greater risk of having a heart attack or developing cardiac diseases, Dr. Jenkins says.

Still, certain populations should be screened before trying an endurance sport, including:

  • People older than 50. If you’re in this group, you typically fall into the master class athlete category. But if you’re new to endurance sports, consult your doctor first and build up gradually, perhaps by running a few 5K races and working up to a half or full marathon.
  • Younger than 50 with known risk factors. Certain risk factors may be red flags, such as:
    • High blood cholesterol
    • Low HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol)
    • High blood pressure
    • Cigarette smoking
    • Type 2 diabetes
    • A family history of heart disease

There are other warning signs, too.

“People at the collegiate level or older who are regular exercisers and start noticing that their performance is falling off – where it wasn’t a problem before – need to be aware of heart attack warning signs," Dr. Jenkins says.

These symptoms include:

  • Crushing chest pain and/or back, jaw or shoulder pain from increased activity
  • Undue fatigue
  • Palpitations
  • Difficult or labored breathing
  • Fainting or dizziness after exercising
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

If any of these symptoms comes on suddenly – with no identifiable cause – you should call 9-1-1 immediately and not wait more than five minutes. Otherwise, if performance is dropping off gradually, see your doctor.

”Running and exercise doesn't render someone invulnerable to a coronary event,” he says.

Regular exercise can help lower your risk, Dr. Jenkins says.

“I tell my patients that exercise is medicine,” he says. “By doing just eight minutes of regular aerobic exercise per day, they've reduced their cardiac risk as compared to someone who just sits on the coach all day.”

Trevor Jenkins, MD is a cardiologist at University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute. You can Request an Appointment with Dr. Jenkins or any other doctor online.

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