Objectives: Sustained aerobic dynamic exercise is beneficial in preventing cardiovascular disease. The effect of lifelong endurance exercise on cardiac structure and function is less well documented, however. A 12 year follow up of 20 veteran athletes was performed, as longitudinal studies in such cohorts are rare.
Methods: Routine echocardiography was repeated as was resting, exercise, and 24 hour electrocardiography.
Results: Nineteen returned for screening. Mean (SD) age was 67 (6.2) years (range 56-83). Two individuals had had permanent pacemakers implanted (one for symptomatic atrial fibrillation with complete heart block, the other for asystole lasting up to 15 seconds). Only two athletes had asystolic pauses in excess of two seconds compared with seven athletes in 1985. Of these seven, five had no asystole on follow up. Two of these five had reduced their average running distance by about 15-20 miles a week. One athlete sustained an acute myocardial infarction during a competitive race in 1988. Three athletes had undergone coronary arteriography during the 12 years of follow up but none had obstructive coronary artery disease. Ten of 19 (53%) had echo evidence of left ventricular hypertrophy in 1997 but only two (11%) had left ventricular dilatation. Ten athletes had ventricular couplets on follow up compared with only two in 1985.
Conclusions: Although the benefits of moderate regular exercise are undisputed, high intensity lifelong endurance exercise may be associated with altered cardiac structure and function. These adaptations to more extreme forms of exercise merit caution in the interpretation of standard cardiac investigations in the older athletic population. On rare occasions, these changes may be deleterious.