Intense physical exercise increases the size, mass, and thickness of the walls of the heart.
“We call this ‘athlete’s heart,’ and we’ve recognized this remodeling process for decades,” says Dr. David J. Engel, a sports cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and senior author of the paper. “But nearly all published data on this describes athletic changes in the hearts of male athletes, and there is very little data on what an athletic heart looks like in elite female athletes, and absolutely no data on the athletic heart in women who are professional basketball players.”
Team physicians and physicians who care for athletes need to know what a healthy heart in elite athletes looks like so that healthy hearts can be distinguished from those with signs of cardiac problems, including hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlargement and thickening of the heart that can lead to life-threatening arrhythmias.
The research is the result of a long-standing collaboration among cardiologists and researchers at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Irving Medical Center, the National Basketball Association and the Women’s National Basketball Association, and the National Basketball and Women’s National Basketball Players Associations that has also created a screening and monitoring program for the leagues and guidelines for NBA and WNBA team physicians. The research team has previously reported similar data on male NBA players.
The new research, published in JAMA Cardiology, also suggests that similar studies of female athletes are needed for other sports, which affect the heart in different ways.
Among U.S. athletes, basketball players have been shown in epidemiologic studies to have the highest incidence of exercise-induced sudden cardiac death, though the incidence is lower for female athletes than for males.
In 2006, the NBA was the first professional sports league to implement a standardized preseason screening program that tests all its players for heart disease.
“But without normative data on how training for professional basketball affects heart structure compared with non-athletes or athletes from other sports, it isn’t easy to identify who is at risk,” says Dr. Sofia Shames, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the study’s lead author.
“Evaluating the WNBA players on a large scale allows us to have comparison data for the future. Up until this research, some players were being sidelined until further tests could be done,” says Dr. Marci Goolsby, the team physician for the WNBA New York Liberty, a sports medicine physician at the Women’s Sports Medicine Center of the Hospital for Special Surgery, and a co-author of the paper. “We now have a much clearer picture of how to interpret data from preseason echocardiograms, and we can better determine who requires further testing.”