In a research letter published in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association in December, a team of Yale researchers reported that some weight lifters may be at risk of rupturing the aorta’s inner lining.

“We had seen a couple of patients in a row who had been weight lifting when this phenomenon occurred,” said John A. Elefteriades, M.D. ’76, HS ’81, FW ’83, chief of cardiothoracic surgery. Looking through his research projects, he found other cases. “I noticed that two or three of them were young people who otherwise wouldn’t have been expected to have an aortic dissection and were lifting weights at the time.”

They found that systolic pressure during heavy weight lifting can rise from a normal reading of 120 to highs of 280 and even 300. “If your aorta is weak due to your genetics and if it is mildly enlarged, weight lifting might be what puts you over the brink,” Elefteriades said.

The danger of a potentially fatal aortic dissection, which splits the artery in two, results from a confluence of events, starting with that genetic predisposition.

Elefteriades is working to pinpoint the genetic links in association with Celera Genomics, the company involved in the mapping of the human genome.

Those at risk include people with aneurysms, connective-tissue diseases and hypertension, as well as people with a family history of aneurysms or dissections and those above age 40.