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Heart damage from preterm birth may be corrected with exercise in young adulthood

Rehabilitation and Sports Cardiology
Risk Factors and Prevention
Cardiac Magnetic Resonance

Venice, Italy – 3 May 2019: Heart abnormalities caused by premature birth may be corrected with exercise in young adulthood, according to research presented today at EuroCMR 2019, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).1

Around 1 to 2% of young adults today were born more than two months prematurely (very preterm) and have heart abnormalities that increase their risk of cardiovascular disease. For instance, the heart is smaller and has to pump harder to supply the body with blood.

“Until now we did not know if this was permanent or amenable to improvement,” said Professor Anne Monique Nuyt, neonatologist and co-principal investigator. “Now, for the first time, we have shown how to make preterm hearts function as well as their peers. No drugs were required – just a 14-week exercise programme.”

The study enrolled 14 participants aged 18–29 years old, of whom eight were born very preterm and six acted as controls. All participants underwent a 14-week exercise programme of aerobic and resistance training three times a week. This included two supervised 90 minute group sessions and one home-based monitored session and was based on Canadian guideline recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week in combination with resistance training

The heart’s structure and function were measured before and after the exercise programme using cardiovascular magnetic resonance (CMR) imaging.

Compared to controls, heart structure and function were worse in preterm participants at the start of the study but similar after the exercise programme. Specifically, the heart’s pumping and contracting functions normalised, meaning the heart no longer had to work extra hard to provide the body with blood.

“We found that a short exercise programme may improve overall cardiac performance and subtle abnormalities in cardiac function in preterm adults,” said first author Elizabeth Hillier, of McGill University, Montreal, Canada. “Advances in neonatal care have enabled premature babies to survive but the abnormal shape and function of the heart is sustained. Exercise in early adulthood corrects these impairments, which should reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

The team used a CMR protocol that visualises subtle changes in heart shape and function. Imaging was performed during hyperventilation for 60 seconds followed by a breath-hold to assess how the heart functioned in a stressful situation (similar to diving).

Ms Hillier said: "With this technique we can detect even mild abnormalities and track the response to interventions. Unlike other methods, we did not have to inject a dye, no radiation was used, and we did not need to administer drugs to put the heart under stress.”



Notes to editor

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Sources of funding: Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, Courtois Cardiovascular Imaging Programme at McGill University.


Disclosures: Professor Matthias Friedrich, co-principal investigator, is an adviser and shareholder to Circle Cardiovascular Imaging Inc., whose software was used in this study.


References and notes

1The abstract ‘The assessment of functional cardiovascular health after exercise intervention in young adults born preterm’ will be presented during the session Rapid Fire Abstract 4: clinical applications of cardiac function phenotyping on Friday 3 May at 16:45 to 18:00 CEST in the Rapid Fire Room.


About the European Association of Cardiovascular Imaging (EACVI)

The European Association of Cardiovascular Imaging (EACVI) - a branch of the ESC - is the world leading network of Cardiovascular Imaging (CVI) experts, gathering four imaging modalities under one entity (Echocardiography, Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance, Nuclear Cardiology and Cardiac Computed Tomography). Its aim is to promote excellence in clinical diagnosis, research, technical development, and education in cardiovascular imaging. The EACVI welcomes over 11,000 professionals including cardiologists, sonographers, nurses, basic scientists and allied professionals.


About EuroCMR

EuroCMR is the annual cardiovascular magnetic resonance (CMR) congress of the European Association of Cardiovascular Imaging (EACVI) of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).

About the European Society of Cardiology

The European Society of Cardiology brings together health care professionals from more than 150 countries, working to advance cardiovascular medicine and help people lead longer, healthier lives.


Information for journalists attending EuroCMR 2019

EuroCMR 2019 will be held 2 to 4 May at the Palazzo del Cinema in Venice, Italy. Explore the scientific programme.

  • To register on-site please bring a valid press card or appropriate letter of assignment with proof of three recent published articles (cardiology or health-related, or referring to a previous ESC Event).
  • Press registration is not available to industry or its public relations representatives, event management, marketing or communications representatives.