Preventing Heart Attacks in Athletes
By Steve Parcell, ND
NatureMed Clinic Boulder, Colorado
The thought of having a sudden heart attack is so disturbing that many people don’t even consider that it could happen to them. I call this the “it can’t happen to me scenario”. Other people may say things like “my cholesterol is normal and I exercise, eat well and don’t have too much stress so I will not get a heart attack.” Well I’m here to tell you from personal experience that this is a very poor way to gauge your risk of an unexpected heart attack. I call this myth number one. While getting regular exercise and following a heart healthy diet reduce risk of heart disease these elements alone do not completely prevent it and if you have plaque, I assure you that diet and exercise are not enough to reverse it.
When I speak about unexpected heart attacks, I am referring to heart attacks in otherwise healthy people between 30 and 70. At over 70 years of age many of us already have coronary plaque, and though still somewhat preventable, a heart attack would not be that unexpected. In the Boulder area in particular there are people who get much more exercise than the average American. They think that because they train 6-12 hours a week their heart must be very healthy. This simply is not true. In fact, athletes may even be at increased risk for coronary artery disease. Here’s why. It’s because of phenomenon called shear stress. Shear stress is cause by a combination of pressure, velocity and high blood viscosity (thick blood). If your blood is very thick and the pressure is high stress on the wall of the artery is the highest. High pressure and thick blood can also occur separately. Shear stress causes damage to the blood vessel lining, causing the vessel wall to thicken, become stiffer and develop plaque.
Athletes, especially those who live at higher elevation, tend to have high red blood cell counts which are a major cause of thick blood and increased blood viscosity. Also, the higher work demands that they put their vascular systems through can exacerbate this effect. I’m not saying exercise is bad, but if you have a high blood viscosity exercising at high intensity may be like taking three steps forward and two back. The incidence of sudden death during athletic activity is still very low, ranging from 1 per 13,000 man-hours of activity in cross-country skiing, to 1 in 396,000 man-hours of activity in jogging. Testing for blood viscosity is inexpensive. If you are interested in a preventive cardiology workup call the office 303.884.7557. Most of the tests are covered 100% by insurance.