1 in 6 elite athletes predisposed to heart issues finds world’s first study

A genetic analysis of 281 elite endurance athletes from Australia and Belgium showed that 1 in 6 had heart traits commonly associated with heart disease.

This is a surprise found in a study conducted by researchers from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute based in Sydney, St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne and several Belgian institutions.

Their work, published today in the journal Circulationshed light on a rare phenomenon in which some exceptional endurance athletes have reduced heart pumping function when resting.

Credit: P Wei via Getty Images

If they are not elite endurance sportspeople, their ejection fraction, the amount of blood pumped by the heart per beat, will be used as a marker of heart disease.

Their EF returns to expected high performance levels once active, however. This state known as a super normal level of exercise function sees the pumping action increase as needed to meet the intense level demands of competition.

Among the group tested were top-flight sports people competing at national and international levels, including many Grand Tour cyclists, triathletes, runners and cross-country skiers.

And yet for 1 in 6 of them, their genetic profile can lead to what cardiologist Andre la Gerche simplified as the big, floppy hearts of non-athletes.

In general, large hearts with low function are associated with heart rhythm problems, including cardiac arrest, said la Gerche, who was a joint senior author of the study.

If a person’s heart function seems to be low, and the ejection fraction is below 50%, we consider that as heart disease, and here, we say that 1 in 6 of the athletes have steps that can be considered a heart disease, but in fact, when we heal them, they seem to be okay.

Those with reduced resting heart function are more likely to have a higher load of genes associated with the development of dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease that stretches and enlarges the ventricles of the heart, reducing the pumping action of blood and can cause a variety of symptoms including palpitations and decreased general activity levels. . Those with the highest load of these genes were 11 times more likely to have reduced heart measurements than those without.

If we look at that in the general population, the people with enhancement or high number of these variants, the number is small. Whereas if we look at an elite athlete population, then we find them more often, says la Gerche.


When we look at patients who have hearts that don’t beat properly, cardiomyopathy sets in [of people] that is another situation where we see these genes more often. These athletes have a different genetic picture to the general population and that genetic picture, in other situations [] linked to heart problems.

It’s kind of an unexpected finding that the genes that make an athlete great, are the same kind of genes that can cause heart problems in others.

La Gerches’ findings come amid a further study of high-profile athletes who have withdrawn from competition due to on-field cardiac incidents. Over the weekend, Luton Town captain Tom Lockyer suffered a cardiac arrest on the field in an English Premier League game against Bournemouth. In April, Damar Hamlin experienced a similar event in his game for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

And in 2021, Danish player Christian Eriksen collapsed in a Euro 2020 game against Finland. Occurring in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eriksens incident has led to false suggestions that it was caused by vaccines developed to address the disease.

However, la Gerche said that elite athletes experiencing heart attacks is not a new trend. While the research only looked at elite endurance athletes (not ball sports players), he hopes it sheds light on a subset of athletes who can perform at elite standards despite those genetic profile that lends itself to heart issues.

Our study began before COVID and spanned the entire COVID period, said la Gerche.

Because it’s a long-term follow up, we’re following people as far as we can tell, with a reasonable level of confidence that COVID actually doesn’t have a big impact on heart size, function, arrythmias.

This is something that has been there before, during and after COVID.

The truth is that cardiac arrest is the No.1 cause of death in people under the age of 50, men and women, and there is some data that suggests that is more common in athletes than in general. – the population. That is exactly what it studies.

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