Jan 29, 2015
Cardiac Concerns

By Patrick Bohn

A recent study of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) conducted on NCAA athletes found that young athletes are more at risk than once thought. The most at risk population? Division I men’s basketball players.

The study, conducted by Kimberly Harmon, M.D., a sports medicine specialist at the University of Washington, and colleagues, tracked deaths among NCAA athletes from 2004 to 2008, and looked at nearly two million athlete participant-years. The study found 45 incidents of cardiovascular related deaths during that time, for a rate of one out of every 43,770 participants per year.

This number is considerably higher than the conventional assumption that one in every 300,000 young athletes are at risk. The research showed that SCD is the main medically related cause of death among athletes.

The study also broke down the results by gender, race, and sport. The findings showed that Division I basketball players were the group most at risk, with one death per 3,146 athletes per year. Cross country runners were those least at risk, with one death per 41,695 athletes per year. Males (one in 33,134) were more than twice as likely to be killed by SCD than females (one in 76,696), and African-American athletes (one in 17,696) were much more at risk than white athletes (one in 58,693).

While the study shows that SCD is a bigger risk than originally thought, a consensus has yet to be reached about the best way to prevent these deaths from occurring. The European Society of Cardiology and the International Olympic Committee recommended the use of electrocardiograms, but an American Heart Association panel considered that “unwieldy and too costly for large U.S. athlete populations.”

In a 2007 statement, Ralph L. Sacco, M.S., M.D., president of the American Heart Association, said, “We strongly encourage student-athletes and other participants in organized competitive sports to be screened with a careful history, including family history, and thorough physical examination,” adding that the professionals administering the screening, “be able to order noninvasive testing when they judge it is needed.”

There’s no doubt that SCD is a risk among athletes. And while many experts agree that having automated external defibrillators and athletic trainers on hand and training other personnel trained in CPR is helpful, the question of whether or not nationwide testing is a viable option remains largely unanswered.

“You have to revisit the whole question of whether a more extensive screening makes sense in light of these new numbers,” Harmon told the Centre Daily Times. “The question is: where do you set the risk cutoff–one in 10,000, or 40,000, or 100,000?”

Patrick Bohn is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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