Nov 14, 2023
Study: Sudden cardiac arrest deaths in college athletes decline

According to a recent study, deaths due to sudden cardiac arrest among college student-athletes have been in decline over the last 20 years.

Researchers from the American Heart Association analyzed data from more than 2 million NCAA student-athletes showed 143 died from cardiac arrest while competing. Data analysis also showed variations when controlling for race, gender, and sport.

cardiac arrestA recent story from NBC News detailed the study while speaking to the researchers. Below is an excerpt from the NBC News story.

“We don’t know why the rate of cardiac arrest deaths has been going down,” said study co-author Dr. Kimberly Harmon, a professor in the departments of family medicine and orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“You could hypothesize that it’s because there are better emergency action plans when there is a cardiac arrest, more people who know CPR and clear access to a defibrillator,” she said. “When someone passes out suddenly, you should think cardiac arrest until evidence shows otherwise.”

The decrease could also be due to more screening, with colleges increasingly requiring athletes be cleared to play with an exam that includes an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), which measures the heart’s electrical activity and can detect dangerous heart rhythms.

“The patterns on an EKG can also tell a lot about the shape and size of the heart,” Harmon said. “In athletes, we are primarily looking for electrical or heart muscle disease.”

It’s been shown that screening that includes an EKG will catch between two-thirds and three-quarters of athletes at risk, she said.

Athletes who have an abnormal EKG might be sent for an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of the organ.

Cardiac arrest in college athletes is relatively rare: In any given year, 1 in 63,000 college athletes die from cardiac arrest, the study found. Harmon’s data showed that in any given year, there were eight sudden cardiac deaths in NCAA athletes.

However, when the researchers dug down into the data by gender, race and sport, they found that there were some very striking differences.

Basketball players had a higher risk, at 1 in 8,188 in any given years.

“If you consider athletes who played four years, then it’s 1 in a little over 2,000,” Harmon said.

Men were at higher risk than women: 1 in 43,348, compared to 1 in 164,504 women college athletes in any given year.

Deaths among Black athletes were three times more common than those among white players: 1 in 27,217, compared to 1 in 74,581 in any given year. Sport cardiologists have previously suggested the reasons that Black athletes face greater risk of cardiac arrest could include genetics, lifestyle and which sport they play.

To read the full story from NBC News about the sudden cardiac arrest study, click here. 

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