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Heart risk during marathons low, but rising

SUMMARY: Entries into long distance running events has doubled over the past 10 years, but doctors warn that running a full or half-marathon won't make you unstoppable. Learn more about the potential dangers of distance running.
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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The risk of cardiac arrest during a marathon or half-marathon is low, but it has increased over the past decade, according to a new study of nearly 11 million race entries.

The findings suggest that runners and their doctors need to realize that heart disease can take its toll even on runners who otherwise would seem to be the picture of health, coauthor Dr. Aaron Baggish of Massachusetts General Hospital told Reuters Health.

"Being a runner is one of the best ways to stay healthy and reduce your risk of disease. But it's not 100 percent protective," he said. "The people who get into trouble are the people who are either born with, or develop, through the normal aging process, heart disease."

Men faced a greater risk than women, and full marathons were more dangerous than half-marathons, according to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Enlarged hearts and blocked arteries were pegged as the biggest causes.

The results come at a time when participation in long-distance races in the U.S. has doubled over the past decade to about two million participants in 2010.

The new findings are based on an ongoing database of all U.S. marathons (26.2 miles) and half-marathons (13.1 miles) run from January 2000 through May 2010. It includes information on 10.9 million race registrations.

In all, there were 59 cases of cardiac arrests -- 42 of them fatal -- during the races or within an hour afterward.

That translates to a risk of 1 in 184,000 runners for developing cardiac arrest during or just after a run. The risk of sudden death was 1 in 259,000, which the researchers characterized as "a low overall risk."

It compares to 1 death per 43,770 college athletes per year and 1 in 7,620 seemingly-healthy middle-age joggers.

The average age at cardiac arrest was 42, plus or minus 13 years. The fatal cases tended to be among younger runners and those who did not get cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) right away.

"We showed quite convincingly that one of the most important determinants of survival from a cardiac arrest is whether or not one gets immediate bystander CPR," said Baggish.

In response, just prior to the Boston Marathon this coming April, "We're going to be offering the first CPR education program for runners over the weekend to actually teach them how to do this," he said.

The researchers also found that the rate of cardiac arrest among males nearly tripled from the first five years of the study to the last five years, from 7.1 to 20.3 per million entrants.

The likely reason?

"The demographic, of men in particular, turning to marathons has changed considerably over the last 10 years," Dr. Baggish said. "It used to be the purview of only healthy fit athletes. Now more folks who had been previously sedentary, have cardiovascular risk factors, and may have histories they wish to personally abort are turning to marathon running at an older age. They are probably the ones accounting for the increased risk."

Doctors need to be aware that 50-year-old runners who cover 15 miles a day can have some of the same risk factors as their couch-potato contemporaries.

"I run a referral practice for athletes with heart issues and I can't tell you how many people walk through the door and say, 'My doctor looked at me and said, "You're so healthy, nothing can be wrong with you,'" Dr. Baggish said.

Other findings:

- The rate of 10.1 cardiac arrests per million entrants in full marathons was nearly four times higher than the rate of 2.7 per million for half marathons. The rate of death during full marathons was more than twice as high.

- The risk of cardiac arrest was more than five times higher for men vs. women (9.0 per vs. 1.6 per million entrants).

The results from the Race Associated Cardiac Arrest Event Registry (RACER) Study Group are similar to a 1996 analysis of more than 200,000 marathon runners done at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, which pegged the risk of sudden cardiac arrest while running a marathon at one in 50,000.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/AcLXG4 New England Journal of Medicine, January 12, 2012.

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