PUMPING IRONY: Strong Medicine

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Though it occurred a half-century ago, I still can remember the time I challenged my dad to an arm-wrestling contest. Infinitely more self-assured than any 18-year-old deserved to become, I had conquered Air Force basic training and returned home on leave along with some a swagger. Dad was an overweight, 51-year-old chain smoker who spent his working hours delivering beer and the free time drinking it.

We locked hands in the dining room table one evening following a friendly game of cribbage and, in just a minute that could only be called educational, it was over. That guy was strong.

I had foolishly overlooked the truth that Dad had been schlepping kegs of beer off a truck and wheeling them into St. Paul bars 5 days a week for nearly 25 years, a task that would no doubt contribute to an amount of muscle mass. He was a man of few words, so there was no crowing after the smackdown, but I suspect he was stifling some lighter moments.

I was reminded of Dad and my adolescent hubris a few days ago while reading about new research suggesting that men that build muscle during middle age tend to be less likely than weaker folks to build up heart disease in their later years. The research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, bolsters earlier research linking declining strength with cardiovascular issues.

But, as Gretchen Reynolds reports in the New York Times, previous studies didn’t concentrate on which condition — muscle loss or heart disease — came first. That’s why lead study author Stefanos Tyrovolas, PhD, and the team tracked strength and cardiovascular health as their study subjects passed through mid-life.

Analyzing data on more than a thousand Greek men and women participating in the ongoing ATTICA study, researchers recorded volunteers’ muscle tissue when they first joined the study in their mid-40s and then observed whether or not they had developed heart disease in their mid-50s. They discovered that about one in four had acquired the condition during the 10-year interim, but after controlling for diet, education, and physical activity, Tyrovolas and his team discovered those sporting relatively large muscles a decade earlier were 81 percent not as likely than their weaker peers to suffer from cardiovascular conditions.

Tyrovolas admits that the study results don’t prove more muscle prevents heart disease, only that it seems to correlate in a positive way — probably with the way muscle tissue affects metabolism, regulating blood sugar and reducing inflammation. Plus, the findings really only apply to men, as cardiovascular trouble has a tendency to develop about 10 years later in females.

The caveat makes sense to me when I think of Dad, who just a few months after our arm-wrestling mismatch found himself undergoing bypass surgery after a major heart attack. He survived, quit smoking, gradually lost his beer belly, but was forced into early retirement. When my military gig was up in 1973, he told me he felt like a new man. His heart was ticking along all right.

Five years later, as if to remind us that irony never takes a day off, cancer laid him low. Toward the end, I figured I could’ve won a rematch, but I never brought it up. You simply never know how things might come out.

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