One in 6 Elite Athletes Show Reduced Heart Function Linked to Genes: Study

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The results highlight the need for more awareness and research to understand the relationship between genetics and heart function in elite athletes.

A new study has revealed that one in six elite athletes has decreased heart function because they have more genes associated with heart muscle disease.

The “world first” study conducted by the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute found those athletes had heart issues at rest, including an enlarged heart, an irregular heartbeat, and changes in the left chamber responsible for pumping oxygenated blood. 

However, their hearts functioned at “super normal” levels during exercise, pumping vigorously to boost cardiac output when needed.

Therefore, exercise stresses genetics, causing significant changes in the heart.

Professor André La Gerche, who heads the HEART Laboratory, said the results reveal, for the first time, the impact of genetics on heart function in these athletes.

He noted that the long-term health impacts of the athletes are still yet to be uncovered. 

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“We have long known that elite athletes have very different hearts to the general population. Exercise promotes profound heart changes. The heart is large in all elite athletes, but there is still considerable variation ranging from large to enormous. The long-term significance of the most extreme changes is not yet certain.”

The researchers analysed 281 male and female athletes using advanced exercise and heart technology in six cities across Australia and Belgium.

The analysis included genetic testing and examining heart function and structure in exercise laboratories. 

Professor Diane Fatkin, who studied the athletes’ genetics, noted this was the first global test examining how genetics affect athletes’ susceptibility to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), or when the heart chambers enlarge and lose their ability to contract.

“What we have found is that there are far more profound changes than thought and that a high number of these athletes do have altered heart function,” Ms. Fatkin said. 

Nevertheless, she stressed that these athletes hearts’ still perform very well. 

“But we don’t know what the long-term effect will be and if this means these athletes will go on to develop cardiomyopathy,” she said. 

Mr. La Gerche emphasised the need to track the same athletes for the next 25 years to see if they develop DCM.

“Regular exercise is associated with clear health benefits, but maybe there is a small group with a genetic predisposition in whom that benefit is less. It might even be potentially dangerous for them to exercise at this incredibly high level,” he added. 

He suggested that genetic testing become a part of their regular health screening to identify risks before tragedy strikes.

“We want to keep our athletes healthy and prevent them from suffering a sudden cardiac arrest,” he explained. 

Athletes Having Cardiac Episodes Gaining Prominence

The findings come amid growing attention on prominent athletes withdrawing from competitions because of cardiac incidents on the field.

In July 2023, Bronny James, the 18-year-old son of superstar LeBron James from the Los Angeles Lakers, suffered a cardiac arrest during a basketball workout at the University of Southern California (USC),

It was later discovered that his sudden attack was due to a congenital heart defect.

Mr. James is the second notable USC basketball recruit to suffer cardiac arrest in the last year. 

USC basketballer Vincent Iwuchukwu faced a similar incident during a workout in July 2023 but returned to the court six months after recovery.

Additionally, Damar Hamlin faced a similar situation in April while playing for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL. 

In 2021, Danish footballer Christian Eriksen collapsed during a Euro 2020 match against Finland.

Syringes filled with COVID-19 vaccine sit on a table at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in a file image. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Syringes filled with COVID-19 vaccine sit on a table at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in a file image. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Concerns Over Potential Link with COVID-19 Vaccines

Mr. Eriksen’s incident led to the possibility that the cardiac incident was linked to COVID-19 vaccines.

In July 2023, Tesla CEO Elon Musk shared concerns about a possible link between heart failure and the vaccine. 

“We cannot ascribe everything to the COVID vaccine, but by the same token, we cannot ascribe nothing. Myocarditis is a known side effect. The only question is whether it is rare or common,” Mr. Musk said in a post on X.

However, according to Mr. La Gerche, the occurrence of elite athletes facing cardiac episodes is not recent. 

“Our study started well before COVID and has traversed the whole COVID period,” he said. 

“Because it’s longitudinal follow up—we follow people all the way through—we can probably say, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that COVID really didn’t have much impact on the cardiac size, function, arrhythmias.”

“This is something that’s been around before, during and after COVID,” he said. 

He noted that cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in individuals under 50, regardless of gender, with evidence suggesting it might be more prevalent among athletes compared to the general population.



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