Non-athletes just as susceptible to sudden death, says new research

29th February 2016

New research has questioned the ethics of heart checks that focus on athletes.

The study says that young people who don’t participate in sport are just as susceptible to dying suddenly from heart diseases such as cardiomyopathy.

They argue that non-athletes may be a bigger health worry because there are more of them.

Some countries, including Italy and America, have a variety of different screening methods for athletes.

Lead researcher Dr Barry J Maron, from the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation in America, said that sudden death in athletes was extraordinarily low.

His team said: “This raises ethical considerations in limiting systematic screening to competitive athletes.”

But Dr Maron continued: “It’s a question of logistics and practicality.  Obviously we can’t screen everybody.”

The researchers said that if a young person died playing sport they were often in a public setting and the case was widely reported.  But other young people dying suddenly would not get this attention.

The researchers looked at a registry of sudden cardiac deaths in Hennepin County in Minnesota between 2000 and 2014.

The assessed 27 deaths with eight in ten being male. Of the three that occurred in athletes, the youngest, aged 17, played basketball; the others were a wrestler and a college football player.  Only one of them died during intense physical activity.

In the nonathletes, all the deaths occurred during mild exertion or when being sedentary.

The researchers concluded that though physical activity could promote sudden death in those with underlying heart disease, only one of the 27 deaths was associated with intense exertion.

Six of the 27 who died had normal heart weight and wall thickness. In the other 21 cases, six deaths were attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and four to arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy. Other cardiac abnormalities caused the other deaths.

Incidence of 24 non-athlete deaths among 946,889 person-years was one in 39,454—substantially exceeding the three sudden deaths in competitive athletes - 361,841 person-years or one in 120,614, said the investigators.

The investigators said the low number of deaths in the athletes could partially be influenced by physical exams, commonly needed before participating in school-sanctioned sports, selecting out at-risk students.  But they did not believe the athletes ruled out by preparticipation screening could have significantly influenced the data.

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