Aging Athlete's Heart: An Echocardiographic Evaluation of Competitive Sprint- versus Endurance-Trained Master Athletes

J Am Soc Echocardiogr. 2021 Jun 24;S0894-7317(21)00552-6. doi: 10.1016/j.echo.2021.06.009. Online ahead of print.


Background: Sports training triggers exercise-induced cardiac remodeling (EICR). Sprint- and endurance-trained master athletes are exposed to different hemodynamic stimuli accompanied by aging. The aim of this study was to compare EICR types in light of the Morganroth hypothesis, frequency of abnormalities, and relationships between cardiac traits and age.

Methods: In this observational cross-sectional study, echocardiographic examinations were conducted in 143 sprint-trained (age range, 36-83 years) and 114 endurance-trained (age range, 38-85 years) competitive master athletes. Structural and functional characteristics were compared with population reference values, and EICR types were identified. Athletic groups were compared using t tests and χ2 tests. Relationships with age were assessed using linear regression.

Results: In the sprint group, 51.0% of athletes had normal cardiac geometry (nonhypertrophic heart), 4.2% had eccentric hypertrophy, 36.4% had concentric remodeling, and 8.4% had concentric hypertrophy. In their endurance-trained peers, these proportions were 22.8%, 16.7%, 36.8%, and 23.7%, respectively. Many athletes in both groups had structural abnormalities, as assessed using population norms (up to ~81% for septal thickness) but their resting cardiac function was normal. The relationships of structural and functional cardiac characteristics with age were mostly weak to moderate and did not differ between training modalities.

Conclusions: Even though many endurance- and sprint-oriented master athletes exceed population norms for cardiac structure, they do not go beyond the "gray zone" and preserve normal cardiac function. Therefore, physiologic adaptations, rather than pathologic abnormalities, are expected in aging but still active athletes. Inconsistent with the Morganroth hypothesis, EICR is shifted toward normal geometry in sprinters and toward concentric remodeling and hypertrophy in endurance runners. A better understanding of the mechanisms behind cardiac remodeling during aging is needed to adequately predict EICR types in master athletes.

Keywords: Abnormal values; Cardiac function; Cardiac hypertrophy; Cardiac structure; Morganroth hypothesis; Sports training modality.