Q: Ed Burke’s fatal heart attack, reported in the November 2002 newsletters, was a shock and a tragedy, and has tempered my enthusiasm for riding. (Ed was 53 and I’m 59.) The reports say that he had a “family history” of heart problems. What does that mean in the context of strenuous exercise? I assume Ed knew his situation and did everything right in terms of medical checks and healthy lifestyle, yet obviously it wasn’t enough. — Reg N.
COACH FRED: I’m 58 and share your concerns about hard exercise as we age.
I’m not aware that medical science has dealt with this issue in detail. We have to remember that strenuous aerobic (or anaerobic) exercise performed by people over 50 is a relatively new phenomenon.
In previous generations, recreational exercise was essentially finished after the school years. So what happens when the aging heart is asked to perform for long periods at 80-95% of max is still largely unexplored territory.
Anecdotally, it seems to me that it isn’t dangerous to perform at high levels as we age. We do know that the heart is strengthened by exercise and works more efficiently — barring underlying coronary disease, of course. But I’d like to see some longitudinal studies in this area.
No follow-up has been published in Ed Burke’s case. I do know that he was concerned about high cholesterol and blood pressure. He told us his father died from a heart attack in his 50s. And Ed had experienced declining performance on the bike in recent months, which frustrated him.
I rode with Ed in August at the Carpenter/Phinney Bike Camp in Frisco, CO, where we gave some evening talks to the riders. He was uncharacteristically slow on one 90-mile ride over four passes. But he thought it was because he’d been too busy with work to train properly.
Let’s hope that Ed’s death will stimulate more studies into this extremely important area.