I understand masters athletes. It helps to be one myself. I compete in cyclocross and road cycling in the Greater Denver/Boulder area. The masters athlete is not a person generally well understood by conventional doctors. Though older athletes are generally very healthy they may put themselves at risk for heart problems. This is because the heart does not always adapt in a healthy way to intense exercise as one gets older. We hear about endurance athletes dying of heart related problems. Why is this? The most common causes are:
- Atherosclerosis: Plaque breaks off and causes a heart attack.
- Cardiomyopathy: Heart muscle undergoes changes that can cause irregular heart beat which can lead to a heart attack.
- Valve problems: Heart valves may start to fail leading to decreased cardiac output and heart failure.
The aging athlete (over age 40) should have a sports physical. The physical should include a stress echocardiogram and selected blood work. Nothing is better than a stress echo to assess cardiac function under load. I also like our athlete patients to have a heart scan to look for plaque as well as a carotid ultrasound to assess plaque thickness in that large artery. I also like them to have a special cardiac muscle strain assessment. Blood work looks at nutritional as well as hormonal components. I help to facilitate these tests for my patients and we do comprehensive blood work at the clinic.
Don’t be caught by surprise by a cardiac event. Older athletes should know that the level of exercise they are engaging in is not doing any harm.