Athletes face a heightened risk of developing atrial fibrillation (AFib), according to a new meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Researchers examined data from more than 70,000 participants from 13 different studies. Sports covered in these studies included cycling, running, swimming, rowing, football, rugby and many more. Overall, athletes were more likely to develop AFib than non-athlete controls, and there was no significant difference when the athlete had diabetes or hypertension.
“The mechanisms by which exercise training increases the risk of AF are complex and speculative, but may include atrial dilation, adrenergic activation, vagal tone, chronic inflammation, pulmonary foci and interstitial fibrosis, occurring as a result of excessive strain through augmented cardiac output and atrial stretch,” wrote first author William Newman, a specialist at Canterbury Christ Church University in the U.K., and colleagues.
The team also found that mixed sports such as football and rugby were associated with a greater risk of AFib than endurance sports such as cycling. In addition, athletes younger than the age of 55 face a significantly higher risk of AFib than athletes 55 years old and older. When it comes to gender, however, it remains unclear if male or female athletes are more likely to develop AFib.
“Due to the limited data in female athletes, it is difficult to discern the relative risk of AFib by gender,” the authors wrote. “In general, risk of AFib in female athletes appears to be lower than in male athletes. It has been suggested that these differences in AFib may be, in part, due to the proclivity for females to experience less atrial remodeling and electrocardiographic changes, alongside sex hormone differences which predispose females to higher vagal tone at rest and during exercise.”
The authors did note that physical activity and exercise training are known to reduce the risk of metabolic disease and improve cardiovascular health. More research is needed to help determine when an individual has pushed themselves too hard and potentially increased their risk of experiencing a heart rhythm issue.
The full analysis is available here.