At age 60 you can have the heart output of a 20-year-old, if you’re prepared to go the extra mile

By the time you reach your 60th birthday, your heart could still be out performing the hearts of inactive 20-year-old whippersnappers, according to a study on cardiac output in healthy men carried out by Paul Chantler and his team from Liverpool John Moores Hospital. Unfortunately, you will have to be prepared to run nearly 30 miles a week for the 20 years preceding the celebration to achieve this.

The study’s findings, to be presented at this year’s Physiological Society conference on Friday 19th December, also shed light on the impact that age and activeness have on the cardiac output of heart attack victims.

The researchers looked at cardiac power output – the amount of pressure and flow the heart generates – in men ranging in age from 20 to 70-years-old. The men were all healthy but did not take regular exercise, bar one group known as ‘veteran athletes’ comprising of 50 and 60 year old subjects who had all exercised at high levels for the best part of thirty years.

“There is a steady decline in cardiac performance as the subjects get older, with the oldest age group experiencing as much as a 20% drop in pumping performance compared to the original 20-year-old-group,” said Paul. “But the veteran athletes, aged 50 to 60 years, predominantly had cardiac performance at least equivalent to if not greater than the 20 year old inactive group.”

The findings point to exercise ameliorating the effect of ageing on the heart, although the exact cause of the benefit is not known. “As the heart ages it loses contractile cells, but the loss is slightly offset by the cells that remain becoming larger and more efficient,” explained Paul. “The question is: does exercise decrease the number of cells lost, or improve the efficiency of those larger cells?”

The study also highlighted the sharp drop in output resulting from heart problems. Heart patients classed at NYHA level 3 – patients that are comfortable at rest but during exercise suffer the onset of fatigue and angina very rapidly – suffered a massive 72% drop in pumping performance compared to healthy patients of the same age. “Obviously with heart attack victims power output from the heart drops,” said Paul. “What our study shows is that ageing and inactivity also have a detrimental effect. You’’re left with a vicious circle; heart problems lead to a drop in power output, which leads to a less active lifestyle, leading in turn to a further drop in power output.”

For the first time, researchers were able look at the effects age and activity exert on the heart independently from the effects caused by heart problems. “By looking at both the amount of flow and pressure the heart generates, we separated the effects of age and disease. This allowed us to look at what the exact effect disease factors have on the heart,” explained Paul.

What the researchers hope to discover is whether heart function can be adapted and improved at a later age. “We are about to start a 12 month training programme involving both men and women,” stated Paul. “We want to see if improvements can be achieved, and what level of training is needed to achieve those improvements.”

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