Cape Town, South Africa, November 13, 2014 – As the young crew of Team Alvimedica races around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race, the sailors are providing an ocean laboratory for a landmark medical study assessing how continued stressful conditions might negatively impact the human heart as well as the body’s strength, endurance, and fitness functions.
Using NASA technology and doctors from several leading academic institutions in the United States, Sweden and the UK, the study has long-term objectives of understanding how stressful conditions influence the important body functions while potentially increasing risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic diseases such as diabetes.
A video news report on the Team Alvimedica Medical Study can be seen here.
The study’s lead cardiology researcher, Martin Ugander, MD, PhD, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, says the race provides a unique environment. “I don’t know of any more extreme model of stress in the world where humans are exposed to the combination of high-intensity and long duration stress by being on a race boat working 4-hour shifts over a period of a month and doing it over nine months repeatedly,” Dr. Ugander said of the competitive ocean racing environment. “This gives us a unique opportunity to look at effects of that stress on the heart.”
Offshore sailors live in a confined space battling sleep deprivation, intense physical activity, the mental stress of racing against a fleet of competitors, and a lack of fresh food for almost 4 weeks at a time on the longer stages of the 39,000 mile, 10-stage race.
“If our hypothesis is validated with this study, then that can have consequences for the general public – all of us experience stress in our daily lives,” Dr. Ugander said. “If we find that the most extreme amounts of stress can affect the heart, then that is a first step towards determining what levels of physical and psychological stress are hazardous. Also, if the heart isn’t affected, then that is important information too.”
For the study’s principal investigator, Stefan Branth, MD, PhD, of Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden, this study – titled “The Stress of Sailing Volvo Ocean Race Study 2014-15” – is much more comprehensive than any other done before in this global competition.
Dr. Branth, who has helped sailors monitor their sleep and nutrition in earlier editions of the race, says this study will yield important results, particularly in understanding which factors help our body to cope with the negative influence of stress.
“Thanks to Alvimedica’s support, we’re able to run this state-of-the-art study of the heart, immune and cardiovascular systems, as well as metabolism and nutrition,” Dr. Branth said.
Alvimedica, the Turkey-based global medical devices company developing minimally invasive technologies including cardiovascular stents, hopes the study will bring in important facts around stress impacts on the heart and body. The company also aims to provide optimal care for their young race crew while they sail around the globe.
“While the findings through this observational study will provide broader understanding of how continued stress impacts cardiac health and leads to solutions, there’s also a very important health-screening component for us to know the sailors are ready to take on this immense mental and physical challenge,” said Alvimedica CEO Dr. Cem Bozkurt. “Pioneering care is a key commitment for Alvimedica and we want to ensure our sailors’ health is a priority as they test their limits throughout this demanding race.”
Team Alvimedica skipper Charlie Enright, 30, of Bristol, RI, USA, says the Alvimedica health program ultimately contributes to performance.
“The better we can maintain our health and fitness, the better we will perform. Having a sponsor like Alvimedica is extremely valuable. The attention they are paying to our body composition is incredible and will give us a lot of insight over the next nine months.”
The eight race crew members and the OnBoard Reporter all underwent two days of comprehensive tests before they set out on the first stage of the race from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town on October 11. Tests included ECG, echocardiography, MRI, body composition, cardiopulmonary exercise testing, and comprehensive blood analysis. In addition, a control group of shoreside event team personnel were also tested to provide a comprehensive baseline before the race started.
When the race team arrived to Cape Town in the early morning hours of November 7, they were immediately tested again to assess changes during the first stage of the race. Within an hour of completing the 26-day ocean leg, the sailors were covered in electrodes and were having blood drawn in the seven-station medical area adjacent to the arrival dock. The testing was conducted before the team had any food or celebratory drinks. The testing regimen will continue as the team races the upcoming stages.
NASA technology and University Contributions
“We are using NASA technology for this study with advanced ECG methods to detect stress,” Dr. Ugander said. The study analyzes advanced ECG data with the software developed by cardiologists at NASA.
The study also looks at the filling pattern of the heart with advanced ultrasound methods. “We are running an advanced analysis as to how the heart fills, focusing on the advanced quantification of the filling pattern of the heart using laptop-based echocardiography machine,” Dr. Ugander said. “We do this in collaboration with colleagues at the Washington University in St Louis, Missouri in the United States. As they are pioneers of studying the biomechanics of cardiac pumping, we are using analysis software developed by them to look at these measures of filling in the sailors.”
Additionally a team of doctors affiliated with Southampton University in England contributed to some of the baseline testing, particularly with regards to cardiopulmonary exercise testing and body composition and metabolism measurements.
Drs. Branth and Ugander are traveling to most of the stopovers of the Volvo Ocean Race to continue collecting data and monitoring results. While the complete findings will be published only after the race finishes in June 2015, some immediate results will be applied to the team’s fitness, diet and recovery programs while the race is still underway.
Team Alvimedica is the youngest entry in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-2015, the world's toughest and longest sporting event. The crew is led by American skipper Charlie Enright, age 30. Alvimedica, the European based medical devices company, is the team’s owner. Founded in 2007, Alvimedica is a fast growing challenger in the global field of interventional cardiology, committed to developing minimally-invasive technologies. This is the team’s first entry in the extremely challenging 39,000-mile race that started October 11, 2014 from Alicante, Spain and features stopovers in 11 ports around the world.