Ask the Experts

Is Your Athletic Heart Ready?


M. Zubair Jafar, MD, FACC
​More about Dr. Jafar

What makes sports cardiology different than cardiology?
Sports cardiology is an extension of cardiology, specifically designed to evaluate people who have an interest in exercise. Sports cardiologists work with student athletes preparing to compete in high school and college, weekend warriors, and older patients who are getting back into a regimen of exercise. Sports cardiologists evaluate whether weekend warriors are at risk for a heart attack, for example. They look at student athletes, especially those who have a family history of heart disease, to be sure it is safe to compete. It is a field specifically designed for a very unique patient population. Extremely healthy people could have underlying risks. Baby boomers, for example, are older and active and some are running marathons in their 50s and 60s. Sports cardiologists are exploring ultra-marathoners, as one example, to determine whether there is a law of diminishing returns. Running 100 mile races may actually be harmful.

 

When do patients need a sports cardiologist?
The groups mentioned above—student athletes, older patients getting back into an exercise routine, and weekend warriors—are the main categories of patients sports cardiologists evaluate. Someone over age of 40, who exercises or wants to begin a sports program, should make sure the heart is not being put at risk. Athletes who are running in sports like track, football, and basketball, should be evaluated, especially if they have a family history of heart disease or are exhibiting symptoms like shortness of breath or dizziness. Sports cardiologists make sure your heart is not at risk during vigorous exercise.

 

How does diagnosis differ according to age group or gender?
Testing the heart for an athlete is completely different than it is for a non-athlete. What we expect is normal is completely different when an athlete has been conditioning. We have to have a completely different protocol for athletes. Athletes have very different hearts and their EKG, or echocardiogram, may be read as abnormal. In fact, these changes are physiologic and normal in an athlete. For example, a normal stress test may be for eight to ten minutes. For an athlete, the protocol changes to testing for a longer period to bring the heart to the same level for testing. A marathoner has to get to a very high level to see if the heart is healthy for a marathon.

 

What steps do you take when a patient is at risk?
When we discover there is a risk, we recommend that the athlete not participate in the sport, marathon, etc. Once the risks are there, patients need to determine how to adjust their exercise program or athletic participation. An older runner may discover a condition that will preclude him/her from running anymore. We qualify the sports to determine exertion rates and risk factors. Runners can consider taking up the sport of golf for example. Student athletes may be able to participate in non-competitive sports, which have less exertion.

 

If you are an athlete (competing in college or weekend warrior), where do you begin?
It is important to know what the risks are from a heart or cardiac standpoint. It is worth getting checked out before starting to compete to prevent a heart attack, stroke, or death on the field or court. Athletes who have any family history of heart disease connected to family members who have died, need to be more aggressive in getting tested for heart issues.


Vassar Brothers Medical Center
The Heart Center, a division of Hudson Valley Cardiovascular Practice, P.C.
1 Columbia Street, 2nd Floor
Poughkeepsie NY 12601
845-473-1188
TTY /Accessibility: (800) 421-1220
www.healthquest.org/heartcenter


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