The Agony of Long-Distance Runners: Coronary Plaque

In Odd Twist, Marathoners Have Higher Levels of Indicator of Heart Risk

MedPage Today Contributing Writer
March 20, 2010

A group of elite long-distance runners had less body fat, better cholesterol and blood lipid profiles, and better heart rates than people being tested for cardiac disease. Paradoxically, however, the runners had more calcified plaque in their heart arteries, according to a study reported this week.

One of the longest-living survivors of coronary bypass shares heart health tips.Investigators performed computed tomography (CT) angiography on 25 people who had run at least one marathon a year since 1985, according to senior author Dr. Robert Schwartz of the Minneapolis Heart Institute and Foundation. They compared the athletes with 23 control patients who were undergoing the same scan for symptomatic or suspected heart abnormalities.

Researchers looked for the amount of calcium plaque on the inside of the subjects' arteries. Past research has suggested that the more calcium plaque inthe arteries, the higher the risk of heart attacks and death from heart disease.

In the non-runners, the calcium plaque volume was 169 cubic millimeters, compared with 274 cubic millimeters for the elite runners, the researchers reported at the American College of Cardiology meeting.

The reasons for the high-calcified plaque readings among hard-core athletes are elusive, "but the [runners'] favorable factors may be counterbalanced by metabolic and mechanical factors that enhance coronary plaque growth," suggested Dr. Jonathan Schwartz of the University of Colorado Health Science Center in Denver, lead author of the study and son of Robert Schwartz.

"You have to consider that these runners may be in a constant state of inflammation, and that may be why we are seeing more plaque," added the elder Schwartz.

In related news, smoking, drinking, and dancing on Sunday were found to be potent predictors for a longer life. Or at least a more fun life. :p