Tougher Heart Screenings Might Prevent Young Athletes' Deaths

Better screening processes may help avoid some cases of sudden death in young athletes, according to a new study.

Everyday Health—March 13, 2013

Tighter screenings of young athletes could have detected serious heart problems that killed dozens of the them, according to new research presented at the annual American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions in San Francisco by the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.

Approximately 110 athletes under the age of 21 die suddenly every year while playing organized sports, according to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, despite various screenings aimed at detecting health issues before they cause problems on the field. The  screenings missed important cardiovascular abnormalities among athletes tracked in the latest study, and researchers said that more rigorous screening procedures could save lives in the future.

Examining 2,588 sudden deaths in young athletes between 1980 and 2009, the researchers found that 44 deaths were attributed to aortic stenosis, aortic dissection, or aortic rupture.

Scott Rodeo MD, co-chief of the sports medicine and shoulder service at Hospital for Special Surgery and associate team physician of the New York Giants, said that parents should push doctors to do extra screening if they suspect something is wrong – especially if there is a family history of heart problems.

“The best thing we can ask is if there is a family history of someone dying at a young age from a heart condition,” he said.

Dr. Rodeo said physicians can perform an electrocardiogram (EKG) to get a more complete picture than a regular screening does, which typically only includes a standard physical. However, while said he would be in favor of making EKG’s part of every young athlete’s screening, he said doctors first need to better understand the differences between the hearts of athletes and non-athlete to eliminate false positives.

“We need to identify what’s normal and abnormal in athletes,” he said. “There can be some EKG abnormalities in athletes that can look abnormal, but are actually normal for them.”

Rodeo mentioned athletic heart syndrome – a condition in which the heart is enlarged through significant aerobic exercise. While an enlarged heart is typically a sign of a serious medical condition, athletic heart syndrome is generally considered to be benign.

“As we learn more about these things, I think we should be screening everyone,” he said. “But we need more information. The issue is that the rate of false positives may be too high. We may see more false positives than actual positives.”

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