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Endurance exercise could impact body's largest artery differently in men and women

Two people running away from the camera along a path in woodland

Older male athletes could be at higher risk of heart and circulatory diseases than female competitors of a similar age, according to new research presented at the British Cardiovascular Society conference in Manchester.

The study, which was part-funded by the British Heart Foundation, showed that older male athletes had a stiffer aorta. However, the findings should not deter people from exercising, as further research is needed to understand the biological reasons underpinning these differences. We also continue to urge that regular, moderate intensity exercise is beneficial for heart health.

Researchers from Barts Heart Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, St George’s Hospital and the University College London (UCL) studied over 300 ‘masters’ athletes – those aged over 40 who had taken part in over 10 endurance events and had exercised regularly for at least 10 years.

Half of the athletes were male, whilst the other half were female. The cohort was mainly made up of distance runners but also included cyclists, swimmers and rowers.

Heart MRI scans were used to study the stiffness of the athlete’s aorta – the largest artery in the human body, which carries oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to the rest of the body and the brain.

Researchers from this group had previously developed a method of calculating vascular age, which estimates the age of arteries based on their stiffness. Stiffer arteries are associated with an increased risk of heart and circulatory diseases, such as heart attack and stroke, in non-athletes – but the impact on the cardiovascular health of athletes is not known.

The team discovered that for older male athletes, their aortas were stiffer and, on average, 9.6 years older than their chronological age. However, for female athletes, the vascular age of their aorta was around the same as their chronological age.

They also investigated the vascular age of different sections of the aorta. Researchers found the greatest difference in the descending aorta, which is the section of the aorta that runs through the chest. For male athletes, this was on average 15 years older than their chronological age. But for female athletes, it was, on average, six years younger.

Although the research couldn’t identify why this is the case, it suggests that long-term endurance exercise might impact men differently to women.