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Heart Disease Health Center

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Heart-Related Deaths in College Athletes: How Common?

Each Year, About One in 44,000 Collegiate Athletes Has Sudden Cardiac Death, Study Finds
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 4, 2011 -- The sudden cardiac death rate for collegiate athletes is higher than many previous estimates and could influence screening guidelines for youths participating in organized sports, a new study suggests.

Each year, about one in 44,000 players in the National Collegiate Athletic Association has sudden cardiac death, the report says.

Study author Kimberly Harmon, MD, of the University of Washington in Seattle, says previous estimates of such deaths often have been based on inconsistent data sources, including media reports.

Tracking Deaths of Young Athletes

In the new study, data from the NCAA was used, along with news reports and insurance claims. It says about 400,000 students between age 17 and 23 participate in NCAA sports every year.

Harmon and her research team tracked deaths from 2004-2008, and report that:

  • The total number of deaths from all causes was 273.
  • 68% of deaths, or the deaths of 187 athletes, were due to non-medical or traumatic causes.
  • 29%, or 80 athletes, died from medical causes.
  • 2%, or six young people, died from unknown causes.

The study says the deaths of 45 young athletes, or 56% of deaths from medical causes, were cardiovascular-related sudden deaths.

Of 36 deaths that occurred during or shortly after exertion, 75% were due to cardiac causes.

In total, the researchers say one in 43,770 athletes died annually of sudden cardiac death.

Potential Guideline Changes

American Heart Association (AHA) president Ralph L. Sacco, MD, MS, tells WebMD the study is important and could lead to changes in the organization’s current guidelines for screenings of athletes.

“This new report provides some new valid information that we have not had in the past that provides fairly excellent statistics regarding sudden cardiac death in certain athletes,” he tells WebMD. “We haven’t had this kind of complete information in the past.”

Sacco says the AHA has always recommended physical exams and personal histories of athletes, but not costly procedures such as electrocardiograms, called EKGs, or echocardiograms, which are basically ultrasound tests of the heart.

But he says Harmon’s findings may make the AHA rethink its guidelines and possibly recommend EKGs.

“This new information will be taken into consideration as to whether it’s enough to make any changes,” Sacco says.

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