Sports May Trigger Sudden Death in Youths
Sports Don't Cause Cardiac Arrest, but They Increase Risk for Some
Dec. 2, 2003 -- Despite the headline-grabbing stories of
athletes who dropped dead on the playing field, a new study shows that playing
sports doesn't increase the risk of sudden death among young athletes. But it
may raise the risks for those with heart conditions that predispose them to
The study showed that although a disproportionate number of
young athletes suffer from sudden death than their non-athletic counterparts,
sports aren't necessarily the cause of the higher death risk. Instead, playing
competitive sports may trigger cardiac arrest and sudden death in people with
underlying heart problems or defects.
Researchers say the results stress the importance of screening
young athletes for heart irregularities and heart disease before they put on a
Sudden Death Triggered, Not Caused, by Sports
In the study, researchers compared the rates of sudden death
among all people between the ages of 12 and 35 in the Veneto region of Italy
(about 1.4 million males and females).
From 1979 to 1999, there were 300 cases of sudden death among
this group, which translates to a rate of about one death per 100,000 persons
per year. Athletes were nearly twice as likely to suffer from sudden death as
non-athletes, with 2.3 cases of sudden death reported per 100,000 persons per
But researchers found that the higher incidence of sudden death
among athletes was strongly related to underlying heart disease, such as heart
defects, arrhythmias, and premature heart disease.
Researchers say those findings showed that sports were not
themselves the cause of higher sudden death rates, but they triggered sudden
death in those predisposed to life-threatening arrhythmias during physical
Results May Not Apply to U.S.
In an editorial that accompanies the study, Roberta G.
Williams, MD, of the University of Southern California, and colleagues say the
study is persuasive but its findings may not apply to the U.S.
They say that the youths studied were nearly 100% white and
don't reflect the racially, culturally, and ethnically diverse pool of young
athletes in the U.S. This is particularly significant because the most common
structural heart defect that contributes to sudden death is much more prevalent
in African-American athletes.
In addition, soccer was the most common competitive sport
played in the Italian study, and basketball and football are the most popular
sports among American youths.