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Bigger Hearts OK for Elite Athletes?

Study: No Extra Heart Risks Seen in Athletes With Big Left Atrium of Heart

Other Heart Chambers Enlarged

WebMD contacted professor Edward Coyle, PhD, about the study.

Coyle directs the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies the physiological factors that limit human exercise performance. His subjects have included seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.

In an email, Coyle tells WebMD that the study showed that endurance athletes have larger left atria, as well as the thicker chamber below it (the left ventricle).

"Although this is well known for the ventricles, [which] perform most of the [heart's] work in pumping, it is clear this is the case for the atria," writes Coyle.

"It would be surprising if both chambers were not enlarged, as they work in tandem, and the volume and size of one should generally match the other," he continues. "More importantly, this study documented that enlargement of the atrial chamber is a healthy adaptation and it is not associated with increased irregular heartbeats or disruption of heart rhythm."

Coyle writes that he has not attempted to measure the size of the left atria but has seen "a healthy enlargement" of the left ventricle in endurance athletes. "This has been well documented by other investigators," writes Coyle.

More Study of Athletes

In a news release from the American College of Cardiology, heart expert Norbert van Hemel, MD, PhD, calls for more study of aging athletes.

"One must question whether this 'adaptation' is sound, and whether it might become the source of physical problems in the years after the intensive sport training is stopped," says Hemel. He is the Pasman Chair of Cardiac Stimulation at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

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