Sudden death in young athletes is rare but most are due to undiagnosed cardiac conditions. Ensuring the health and safety of student athletes is a top priority for the Department of Athletics at Texas A&M, in collaboration with the Department of Health and Kinesiology and the Health Science Center College of Medicine. Recent research published in The American Journal of Cardiology and led by Stephen Crouse, Ph.D., is shedding light on the healthy cardiac parameters and blood pressure levels of collegiate American-style football (ASF) athletes.
Crouse, professor of kinesiology and joint professor of internal medicine, and his colleagues studied 80 incoming Texas A&M football players. Data were collected over three years as part of a pre-participation physical exam in the Applied Exercise Physiology Lab. The purpose was to describe heart characteristics and blood pressure values in collegiate ASF athletes compared with the average college student.
“Before this study, there weren’t baseline comparative benchmarks for screening and follow up of incoming NCAA football players for cardiac anatomical variations, blood pressure, and training effects,” said John Erwin, III, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine and co-author of this research. “These results should serve as a basis to better define normal and abnormal findings in athletes’ hearts.”
“The aspect of health in athletes is a really important component of what we do here at Texas A&M. Even though performance is very important, health of the athletes is critical,” Crouse added.
The heart trains just like any other muscle – it grows larger the more the athlete exercises. However, in the non-athlete population, a larger heart and thicker muscle can be associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Football athletes are known to have larger hearts because, in part, they are larger people. This study confirmed that, finding enlarged hearts and increased ventricular wall thickness. The key is to adjust the heart size by the size of the individual to see if such adjustment brings the heart back into a normal range. If not, that could indicate there is an enlargement that may not be healthy.
“If an athlete comes in and has some kind of issue on the field or something that could be cardiac related, now there are data these clinicians can look at and say ‘okay, in this dimension the athlete’s heart looks normal but in another it doesn’t look normal,’” said Crouse. “Our study doesn’t really tell us much about how well these athletes are going to perform on the field. We don’t say anything about having a bigger heart making you a better athlete. All we’re trying to do is get information that will help us make health judgments and help the athletes be healthier.”
The study also examined the occurrence of high blood pressure in football athletes. Researchers found that 64 percent of the study participants had pre-hypertension, meaning their blood pressure was elevated above what is normal but not enough to be considered high blood pressure. The study shows it is possible the elevated blood pressure represents an adaptation to the high-intensity training and could be reversed at the end of training.
According to the research, “these results confirm the importance of screening for hypertension in these apparently healthy ASF athletes and calls for monitoring BP on a regular basis throughout their competitive careers and after retirement.”
“What we would like to be able to do as time goes on is to follow these athletes from year to year as they train in our program to really be able to document what happens to their heart structure and function as we go through their training throughout their collegiate career,” explained Dr. Crouse. “Hopefully we will be able to follow them after that and perhaps such post-competition tracking will help us determine if what we measure when they are competing predicts cardiac problems in the future.”
For more information on the Applied Exercise Physiology Lab and the research conducted, visit: http://appliedexerciselab.tamu.edu/