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New research to better understand how heart scarring affects veteran athletes

By on May 16, 2022 0

We have funded new research that will monitor the heartbeats of more than 100 athletes over two years to measure the impact of endurance exercise on their hearts.

Heart scarring is a key feature of many heart diseases and is strongly associated with abnormal heart rhythms, which can cause life-threatening cardiac arrest.

A previous small study of male athletes over the age of 50, also known as veteran athletes, found that about half of the participants developed scarring on their hearts. It is thought this could be caused by their level of exercise, as during endurance sports like cross-country running and cycling, the heart has to work even harder to pump blood. However, it is still unclear how the scarring developed.

Every heartbeat

Now a new £320,000 project at the University of Leeds will see 106 veteran athletes fitted with a small implantable monitor. The devices are about half the size of a ballpoint pen and will be implanted under the skin on the athlete’s chest.

The monitor will measure each of their heartbeats over two years, allowing researchers to assess the athletes’ heart rate during and after exercise, among other things. Previously, this measurement was done using sensor stickers and fitness trackers, which were not always accurate.

Athletes will also undergo MRI scans – which will look for signs of scarring and assess heart function – as well as blood and fitness tests.

Overall, the research will aim to understand whether heart scarring in athletes is linked to abnormal heart rhythms and could inform future research into ways to prevent or reduce heart damage in endurance sports.

Benefit the athletes

Gethin Davies-Jones is participating in the study.  He is pictured on his bike.

Cyclist Gethin Davies-Jones will participate in the study. The 55-year-old, who lives near Caerphilly in Wales, has tragically lost family members to heart problems.

Gethin’s brother, Glyn Jones, was also 55 when he suddenly collapsed while taking part in a local sporting event. Glyn was found to be living with coronary heart disease, which had gone undiagnosed – and sadly Glyn later died in hospital. Gethin’s mother, Helen Jones, was in her 40s when she died of sudden cardiac arrest.

Father-of-one Gethin said: “Losing my family members when they were young had a huge impact on me. There are so many conversations and memories that I will no longer be able to have with my brother and mother, and their experiences have brought my own mortality to the fore.

“Cycling is a big passion for me – I love competing against the clock and I’m a beginner triathlete. The sport is great for my mental health and since starting it I’ve been able to lose 12kg of However, when I go out on my bike, there is always the worry in my mind that what happened to my brother could happen to me.

“That’s why my interest in this study is so immediate and profound, as it will help me better understand my own heart health. It’s great that the British Heart Foundation is funding this research as it could really benefit athletes like me.

Identify people at risk

The research is currently underway at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust Advanced Imaging Center and is led by Dr Peter Swoboda, Clinical Lecturer in Cardiology at the University of Leeds Medical School.

Dr Swoboda said: “Exercise is good for the heart, but studies have suggested that people who engage in long-term endurance sport may lose the health benefits of exercise – and in some cases , could even damage their hearts over time.

“For an athlete, an abnormal heartbeat can often spell the end of their career, and we all know the devastating but rare event of sudden death during sport.

“With implantable monitors configured to detect billions of heartbeats, we will learn a lot from this study, including whether heart scarring is related to irregular heart rhythms. This could help identify who is most at risk, and some of the lessons we learn could also be applied to young athletes.

Safer participation in sport

Dr Subreena Simrick, Senior Research Adviser at BHF, added: “Physical activity can reduce the risk of heart and circulatory disease, by helping to control your weight and lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

“This research examines how endurance exercise affects the heart and whether heart scarring found in some athletes is a factor that leads to potentially dangerous irregular heartbeats. If so, this project could pave the way for new research into potential treatments and preventions, allowing athletes of all ages to participate in sport in the safest way possible.

“For more than 60 years, public generosity has funded BHF research that has turned ideas that once seemed like ‘science fiction’ into treatments and cures that save lives every day. We urgently need public support to continue our life-saving research and to discover the treatments and cures of the future.