- Pumping Irony -

PUMPING IRONY: Strong Medicine

New research on muscle mass and heart disease reminds me of a harsh lesson my dad taught me long ago: Never assume anything. 

Two hands grasp each other.

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

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

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

I was reminded of Dad and my adolescent hubris the other day while reading about new research suggesting that men who build muscle during middle age are much less likely than weaker folks to develop heart disease in their later years. The study, 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 focus on which condition — muscle loss or heart disease — came first. That’s why lead study author Stefanos Tyrovolas, PhD, and his team tracked strength and cardiovascular health as their study subjects passed through middle age.

Analyzing data on more than a thousand Greek men and women participating in the ongoing ATTICA study, researchers recorded volunteers’ muscle mass when they first joined the study in their mid-40s and then observed whether they had developed heart disease in their mid-50s. They found that about one in four had acquired the disease 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 less likely than their weaker peers to suffer from cardiovascular conditions.

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

The caveat makes sense to me when I think of Dad, who only 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. By the time my military gig was up in 1973, he told me he felt like a new man. His heart was ticking along just fine.

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 just never know how things might turn out.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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