MRI helps identify older athletes at risk for heart attack

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A MRI study has shown that cardiovascular disease can be difficult to identify in healthy marathon runners over age 50 because it is difficult to distinguish from the effects of training the heart muscle. The findings were presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

"Radiologists can use MRI to identify cardiovascular disease that is not yet causing symptoms," said Torleif A. Sandner, MD, a radiologist at University Hospital, Munich University in Germany.

The study performed at University Hospital in Essen, Germany, involved 110 male volunteers between the ages of 50 and 72 with no symptoms. Each had completed at least five marathons in the last three years.

The MRI scans revealed that, although cardiac chambers were not enlarged, left ventricular mass (LVM) in the marathon runners was significantly higher than in the general population. The marathon runners had an average LVM weight of 141 grams compared to a normal weight of approximately 77.5 grams, according to a release of the findings.

"The change in the heart mass is the way the body reacts to the endurance training," Sandner said. "However, in some runners, it may also be an early sign of cardiac disease."

"It is difficult to differentiate an athlete's heart from one that has disease," added Stefan Möhlenkamp, MD, PhD, cardiologist and principal investigator of the study. "Establishing criteria for what is normal in marathon runners of advanced age is one of the team's research goals."

According to Dr. Möhlenkamp, pre-training screening of new endurance athletes doesn't typically account for problems specific to advanced-age runners, and common techniques “can miss early potentially life-threatening cardiovascular disease," he said.