A new study from the United Kingdom found that athletes have an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is an arrhythmia or irregular heart rhythms that are associated with an increased risk of a variety of health issues like stroke.

The new study, titled "Risk of atrial fibrillation in athletes: a systematic review and meta-analysis" published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that younger athletes have a higher risk of developing the disease than older athletes despite the disease being often associated with older adults.

 Athletes at Higher Risk of Experiencing A Heart Condition that May Lead to Stroke, Study Shows
(Photo: Pixabay)
Athletes at Higher Risk of Experiencing A Heart Condition that May Lead to Stroke, Study Shows

Risk of AFib in Athletes

Although previous studies showed that exercise has health benefits, particularly on heart health, there is a threshold that says too much of it could increase the risk of heart issues, like atrial fibrillation. AFib is a heart condition that can raise the risk of stroke heart failure, and other heart-related issues.

According to SciTech Daily, researchers from the UK led by Canterbury Christ Church University reviewed existing studies on how sports could increase the risk of an athlete developing AFib to reach a conclusive picture of the condition's overall prevalence among people who engage in certain types of sports.

The team analyzed 13 studies that were published between 1990 and December 2020, which looked at the health of athletes in different sports, like cycling, running, swimming, Nordic skiing, orienteering, rowing, football, rugby, and netball.

They found that athletes appear to be 2.46 times more likely to experience irregular heartbeats than non-athletes. This is most especially true for athletes involved in mixed sports such as football, rugby, or netball, compared to those taking part in endurance sports like Nordic skiing, orienteering, or rowing.

Furthermore, they found that there was no significant difference in the relative risk of developing AFib in athletes and non-athletes with other cardiovascular disease risk factors, like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

But for athletes and non-athletes who have these cardiovascular disease risk factors, had an elevated risk by 3.7 times of experiencing atrial fibrillation.

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Younger Athletes Have Higher Risk of Experiencing AFib

Researchers also found that athletes below 55 years old had a much higher risk of having AFib than athletes that are over that age, according to Healthline. Older athletes have 76% more chances of experiencing this heart condition than non-athletes.

"Younger aged athletes have a greater relative risk of atrial fibrillation compared with older athletes; however, exercise dose parameters, including training and competition history, as well as potential gender differences for the risk of atrial fibrillation requires future research," the authors wrote in their study.

The authors noted that there is a limitation to their research, like the fact that the studies they reviewed all had their own methodologies, and that there is limited data on female athletes.

Nevertheless, the study showed that athletes have a significantly greater likelihood of developing irregular heart rhythms than those individuals who do not engage in sports.

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