Older athletes ignoring potentially fatal heart warning signs - survey

Lisa Davies Lisa Davies | 06-21 16:20

Our older athletes are dicing with death, with a new study revealing many are so committed to their sports, they ignore potentially fatal heart warning signs.

Dr Ben Rendall, of the cardiology department at Christchurch Hospital, surveyed more than 100 male and female older athletes in New Zealand. He found that one in five have experienced one or more potential cardiac symptoms while playing their competitive sport over the last year and that concerningly, only one in four of them had sought medical attention.

"It's really good people are into their sports, even as they get older, but we want people to be keeping safe and taking notice when they're having symptoms," Rendall said.

Christchurch Hospital's director of cardiology Dr Paul Bridgman said while regular exercise improves health and is beneficial overall, there is a temporarily increased risk of heart attacks and sudden death with strenuous exercise.

"We encourage older athletes to continue with their competitive sports. This study gives us insights into how we can make this safer for them," he said.

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"These are New Zealanders, fit and healthy, and they're taking chances with their health because of their competitive nature."

The study found that older athletes in cricket, football, volleyball, and tennis were more concerned about their teammates or opposition having a cardiac arrest or heart attack during the match, than they were for their own health. Around 80% of masters athletes admitted if the match was an important game or competition final, they would be more likely to play through potential cardiac symptoms.

"It is important that older athletes understand what the symptoms of a heart attack may be, and that they do not play through," Rendall said.

Those symptoms include chest pain, breathlessness, feeling lightheaded, and dizziness.

Christchurch Hospital's cardiology department is now encouraging all athletes at sports clubs to get familiar with using defibrillators.

Their survey shows 30% did not know if there was a defibrillator available at their regular sporting venue, and only 60% had bothered to familiarise themselves with the device's location and use. Masters athletes overestimated how likely they would be to survive an event without a defibrillator.

'Back from the dead'

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Ian 'Mate' Gard in the intensive care unit after collapsing while running in the Motatapu Half Marathon. (Source: Supplied)

Kurow runner Ian 'Mate' Gard found out the hard way how important it is to take all heart symptoms seriously, after the 67-year-old collapsed 3km from the end of the Motatapu Half Marathon.

His heart stopped beating, and it was the quick action of other runners that brought him back from the brink.

"He was dead, absolutely dead then was very lucky those two nurses came along and resuscitated him," Bridgman said.

They broke six of his ribs performing CPR before he was rushed by helicopter to Christchurch Hospital.

Gard made light of what happened as he looked at the photo of him and his family at the start line.

"I'm looking pretty good just before I died," he joked. "A lot of people ask me what it's like on the other side. I can't remember, but it's not a bad way to die, really."

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His tone changed as he gazed at photos of himself in a coma in the hospital's intensive care unit.

"Oh God, it's not good, is it? Don't show that to people who run — it will put them off."

Gard had a very serious message for other older athletes after what happened to him.

"See the doctor, especially when you get older. Get check-ups, make sure everything's OK."

Following a recent echocardiogram, Gard had just one question for Rendall, asking: "Am I right to run again?"

"It's back from the dead. You've got a few more races in ya," Rendall replied.

"That's good," Gard said with a laugh.

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After being a runner for 35 years, Gard has a goal.

"My ambition is to run up the top of Kurow Hill 'til I'm 75."

He encouraged other runners to do the same — while keeping an eye on their health.

"Just keep going as long as you can forever until you die, which I did but I've come back so I've got to do it twice."

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