TUESDAY, Nov. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Elite female marathon runners have less coronary artery plaque than their male counterparts and sedentary women, a new study finds.

This type of plaque can lead to coronary artery disease, which is the most common type of heart disease and the leading cause of death in the United States.

A recent Minneapolis Heart Institute study found that elite male marathoner runners may have more coronary artery plaque than men who aren't physically active, so the investigators decided to see if the same was true in women.

They used coronary computed tomography angiography (CCTA) scans to examine coronary artery plaque in 25 female marathoners and 28 age-matched sedentary women. The runners had participated in a minimum of one marathon a year for 10 consecutive years.

A total of 28 coronary plaque lesions were identified in 14 of the sedentary women and in five of the marathoners. Overall, the mean plaque volume was about 170 in the sedentary women and 96 in the marathoners and the average percent stenosis (narrowing of the arteries) was 28 percent in the sedentary women and 10 percent in the marathoners.

The study was to be presented Wednesday at the American Heart Association annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.

"We were happy to discover that women who exercised extensively saw benefits in their cardiovascular health," senior author Dr. Robert Schwartz, an interventional cardiologist at the Minneapolis Heart Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and physician researcher with Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, said in a foundation news release.

"These findings show a positive physical result for women choosing to be competitive runners because the marathoners had lower heart rates, lower blood pressure, better cholesterol profiles and lower incidence of diabetes," he noted. "This was an opposite finding than in the men."

The previous male study included marathoners who were much older than the females in this study.

"We are now seeking to determine whether there is truly a gender difference, or was it confounded by age," Schwartz said.

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about coronary artery disease.