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 cardiac arrest.
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 team jersey.
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 year.
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 exercise.
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.