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Athletes' ECGs can mislead

ELITE athletes' hearts show abnormalities on electrocardiograms (ECGs) that resemble those seen in various heart conditions but it usually does not mean they should retire. Instead, Italian researchers report, abnormal heart tests are often an "innocent consequence" of intense athletic training, a phenomenon called athlete heart syndrome. The findings also bring into question the exclusive use of ECGs to screen competitive athletes for heart conditions, according to a report in the July 18th issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Dr. Antonio Pelliccia of the Institute of Sports Science in Rome, Italy, led the study. Pelliccia's team looked at ECG readings for 1,005 elite athletes in 38 sports. ECGs gauge the heart's electrical activity in order to detect abnormal pulses. The Italian researchers compared each athlete's ECG with an echocardiogram of his or her heart; an echocardiogram is an ultrasound test that reveals the structure and motion of the heart.

The investigators found that although 40 per cent of the athletes had abnormal ECGs, only 5 per cent had actual structural abnormalitles. Those with "distinctly abnormal" ECGs were more likely than athletes with "mildly abnormal" ECGs to have structural problems in the heart 10 per cent versus 5 per cent.

Abnormal ECGs turned up mainly in men aged 15 to 36 who were involved In endurance sports such as cycling and cross- country skiing. When an ECG Is abnormal. according to Pelliecia, it should be followed up by an echocardiogram.

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