Athletes may be more than twice as likely to experience irregular heartbeat

CANTERBURY, England — Athletes in tip-top shape may be more likely to enjoy optimal cardiovascular health, but new research finds that playing sports can also have negative consequences on the heart. According to a study out of the United Kingdom, athletes are almost two-and-a-half times more likely to experience an irregular heartbeat.

Researchers say that those who play mixed sports such as soccer, rugby or netball have the highest risk when compared to athletes taking part in endurance sports such as Nordic skiing, orienteering or rowing. 

Previous studies suggest that physical activity can improve cardiovascular health and is associated with reduced illness and deaths. However, they have suggested, after a certain threshold, increasing levels of exercise is linked to heart issues including atrial fibrillation or AFib, an irregular heartbeat which raises the risk of stroke and heart failure. After the Danish pro midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed with heart failure at his side’s opening group match, researchers were prompted to continue this study.

The authors, led by researchers at Canterbury Christ Church University, made their findings during a review of 13 suitable studies that were published between 1990 and December 2020. Those studies looked at the risk of irregular heartbeat in 70,478 participants, including 6,816 athletes, who took part in sports such as cycling, running, swimming, Nordic skiing, orienteering, rowing, soccer, rugby, and netball.

The research team found the risk of AFib was 2.46 times higher among athletes than non-athletes. In those without cardiovascular disease risk factors, like type-2 diabetes, athletes were 3.7 times more at risk than non-athletes. Meanwhile, those under the age of 55 had a 3.6 times higher risk of AFib than older athletes, even though they were 76% more likely to have the condition than non-athletes.

Further analysis also showed that athletes taking part in mixed sports rather than endurance sports had a higher risk of irregular heartbeat. “Athletes have a significantly greater likelihood of developing atrial fibrillation compared with non-athlete controls,” the researchers conclude in their report. “Younger aged athletes have a greater relative risk of atrial fibrillation compared with older athletes. However, exercise dose parameters, including training and competition history, as well as potential gender differences for the risk of atrial fibrillation requires future research.”

This study is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.

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