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Heart Disease Health Center

Heart-Related Deaths in College Athletes: How Common?

Each Year, About One in 44,000 Collegiate Athletes Has Sudden Cardiac Death, Study Finds
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Focus on Heart Issues

When young athletes die of sudden cardiac death, interest increases, Sacco says.

For example, the sudden death earlier this year of Fennville, Mich., high school basketball star Wes Leonard, 16, who collapsed and died just minutes after scoring a winning basket, received widespread publicity. An autopsy said he died of dilated cardiomyopathy, more commonly referred to as an “enlarged heart.”

The AHA says in policy guidelines that athletic training and competition can increase the risk of sudden cardiac death in people with underlying heart disease.

In a news release, the AHA says various heart conditions can be deadly for young athletes, and the most common is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an abnormal growth of heart muscle fibers.

Other Study Findings

Other key findings of the study included:

  • African-American athletes had a sudden cardiac death rate of one in 17,696, compared with one in 58,653 for white competitors.
  • The risk for males was one in 33,134 vs. one in 76,646 for females.
  • The highest risk rate of sudden cardiac death was associated with playing basketball, with a rate of one in 11,394. Swimming was associated with the second-highest risk, followed by lacrosse, football, and cross-country track.
  • The risk of sudden cardiac death in male athletes in Division I basketball was about one in 3,000.

The AHA in 2007 issued a statement recommending that every athlete give a detailed personal and family medical history and have a thorough physical exam before participating in sports. Further testing would then be warranted if such tests revealed worrisome data.

The European Society of Cardiology and the International Olympic Committee have recommended the addition of EKGs. But the AHA has so far considered that too costly and unwieldy for the large population of American athletes. More extensive testing may be practical if targeted at higher-risk groups, such as basketball players, Sacco says. In addition, automated external defibrillators, which are used to revive people whose hearts have stopped, could and should be placed in areas where the highest-risk sports are played, he tells WebMD.

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