They (heart) science: Heart attack survivor, researcher head for the heights of Everest

It has the makings of a mountaineering first when an Edmonton heart attack survivor attempts to summit the highest mountain on Earth next spring.

But the climb will also provide an opportunity for a University of Alberta researcher to study the effects of altitude and decreased levels of oxygen on human hearts — and, in particular, the hearts of women.

“This research expedition is actually going to be a bit of a different focus to some of the ones we have done in the past. We’re going to focus on women’s health,” researcher Craig Steinback told CBC’s Radio Active on Thursday.

“Women aren’t small men and we know that they have different life stages,” he said. “They have different cardiovascular systems. Their hearts are different, their blood vessels are different. And so studying those lets us know how we can focus female health care.”

U of A researcher Craig Steinback and mountaineer Leo Namen speak to Radio Active on Thursday, Nov. 21. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

The associate professor with the faculty of kinesiology, sport and recreation has teamed up with Leo Namen, who will attempt to scale Mount Everest in May 2020. The journey comes just two years after the experienced mountaineer had a major heart attack.

In addition to a lofty ambition to reach the summit, the 49-year-old securities adviser is also hoping to raise $500,000 in his Heart of the Summit fundraiser for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, which is funding Steinback’s research. 

Namen also hopes the trek will send a message to heart attack survivors as well as to those who’ve never considered themselves to be at risk.

Leo Namen in hospital following his heart attack in April 2018. (Submitted by Leo Namen)

“It’s not subject to age or any of these factors. Anyone can be disposed to heart disease,” he said. “I am a mountaineer. I do exercise and everything. My heart attack came in the gym when I was exercising.”

He’s also thrilled to support research into women’s heart health, an area that has long lagged behind the study of cardiovascular issues in men.

“Women are being misdiagnosed,” he said. “We are six in my family and four of them are women. And it broke my heart to think that it’s a lack of studies towards women.”

In 2016, Steinback and his team spent two weeks in Nepal studying Sherpas, a unique Himalayan people who Steinback described as the kings and queens of the mountains.

“Understanding how people have adapted to live in those conditions might shed some light on how we can pinpoint who’s going to be a successful heart attack survivor, who is going to be a successful stroke survivor.” 

The research team will effectively re-create on the mountain many of the physiological tests that would be done in his campus lab. 

Heart attack survivor Namen is already training for his climb of a lifetime, doing training hikes and high-altitude climbs in Alberta and Mexico. 

“After you have a heart attack, it’s a lot of things in your mind. And one of them is the fact that you possibly think that you can die,” he said. ” But I’m training for that. I’m getting ready. I am doing my best to be there and do it.”

Craig Steinback during his research trip to Nepal in 2016.

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