New study reveals more footballers are dying of heart problems

9th August 2018

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has shown that the risk of young footballers suffering sudden cardiac death is at a higher rate than previously thought.

A study conducted by St George's, University of London, analysed more than 11,000 players from the ages of 16-17 over a 10-year period. Of these players, 42 had cardiac diseases that could cause sudden cardiac death - hardly any had symptoms.

Eight died during exercise – six from conditions that had gone unidentified and two, who were diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) and were advised against competitive sport.

Between 1997 and 2016, the footballers filled in a health questionnaire; were given a physical examination and a 12-lead ECG and echocardiography.

30 out of the 42 players had surgery or other treatment for their heart defect and were able to go back to playing football, but the other 12 stopped playing.

There have been a number of high-profile deaths in recent years, including that of Marc-Vivien Foe aged 28, as well as former England defender Ugo Ehiogu, who died last year, aged 44.

The research was overseen by Professor Sanjay Sharma, who said:
“Sudden deaths in footballers are more common than we previously believed and despite screening, cardiac conditions are still the leading cause of death in footballers.

 “The most important finding in this paper is the necessity for those athletes who are pushing their bodies to their limits every day, to be tested regularly, through to early adulthood, to pick up those conditions which develop after the teenage years.

“The death of a young athlete is highly tragic when one considers that most deaths are due to congenital electrical or structural diseases of the heart that are detectable during life.”

There has always been a debate about whether screening is proven to be successful and a previous review in the British Medical Journal in 2016 said its efficacy was not supported by evidence. The Independent UK National Screening Committee recently reviewed this and came to the same conclusion that untargeted screening was not effective.

Joel Rose, Chief Executive at Cardiomyopathy UK said: “We don’t believe in untargeted cardiovascular screening programmes, Screening shouldn’t be a one off occurrence but should be a planned strategy. However, this study has highlighted the importance of raising awareness of those at risk from underlying conditions such as cardiomyopathy which are more common than people realise.”

Read Cardiomyopathy UK's full position on cardiac screening