Endurance exercise may affect your body’s largest artery

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Scientists from UCL found that older male athletes could be at higher risk of heart and circulatory diseases than female competitors of a similar age.

They found that older male athletes had a stiffer aorta.

The vascular age of male athletes’ aorta was almost 10 years older than their chronological age, whereas female athletes showed no overall age difference.

The research was presented at the British Cardiovascular Society (BCS) conference and was conducted by Dr. Rebecca Hughes et al.

In the study, the team examined over 300 ‘masters’ athletes—those aged over 40 who had taken part in over 10 endurance events and had exercised regularly for at least 10 years.

Half of the athletes were male, whilst the other half were female. The cohort was mainly made up of distance runners but also included cyclists, swimmers and rowers.

Heart MRI scans were used to study the stiffness of the athlete’s aorta—the largest artery in the human body, which carries oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to the rest of the body and the brain.

The team had previously developed a method of calculating vascular age, which estimates the age of arteries based on their stiffness.

Stiffer arteries are linked to an increased risk of heart and circulatory diseases, such as heart attack and stroke, in non-athletes—but the impact on the cardiovascular health of athletes is not known.

The team found that for older male athletes, their aortas were stiffer and, on average, 9.6 years older than their chronological age. However, for female athletes, the vascular age of their aorta was around the same as their chronological age.

They also found the greatest difference in the descending aorta, which is the section of the aorta that runs through the chest.

For male athletes, this was on average 15 years older than their chronological age. But for female athletes, it was, on average, six years younger.

Although the research couldn’t identify why this is the case, it suggests that long-term endurance exercise might impact men differently to women.

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