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Sep 23, 2013

Sudden Cardiac Death Risk Low Among High School Athletes

Study urges against widespread screenings to help prevent sudden cardiac death in young athletes.

Sudden cardiac death is extremely rare in kids, affecting only 1 to 2 per 100,000 children each year. But we’ve all heard devastating stories about young athletes suddenly passing away from this condition, leaving many to wonder what we can do to prevent it.

Electrocardiograms are one way to identify individuals at increased risk for sudden cardiac death. This painless test, commonly referred to as an EKG, records electrical signals from the heart to diagnose a variety of heart conditions. Usually, this test is used when there is cause for concern—like when a patient has symptoms for an irregular heartbeat—but experts have debated whether EKGs should be used as a widespread screening tool for children, especially those involved in sports. Research has shown that vigorous physical activity can sometimes trigger sudden cardiac arrest and it’s possible that EKGs could better identify children at risk for this condition. But according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, sudden cardiac death is so rare in high school students that EKG screenings may not make a difference at all.

This study looked at medical records from more than 1.6 million Minnesota high school athletes participating in school sports between 1993 and 2012. During this time period, there were a total of 4 students that suffered sudden cardiac death, making risk for this condition extremely low among high school students, especially compared to college athletes.

Based on these findings, researchers advise against EKG screenings for high school athletes. As study investigators point out, there were no sudden cardiac deaths in the last 9 years of this study, so EKG screenings could not have possibly prevented any cases. Risk for sudden cardiac arrest is so low in high school students that widespread screening wouldn’t provide much benefit. Instead, experts suggest that it would be more effective to equip all high schools with automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) and emergency plans for when an individual does suffer sudden cardiac arrest. These tools can help prepare high schools for these rare, emergency medical cases and greatly increase chances of survival after sudden cardiac arrest.
Read the full article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is sudden cardiac death?

  • Sudden cardiac death can result from sudden cardiac arrest, when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating. Sudden cardiac arrest must be immediately addressed with CPR and medical attention to improve chances of survival.
  • Who is most at risk for sudden cardiac death?

  • Men are 2-3 times more likely to have sudden cardiac arrest than women. Risk also increases with age, particularly in those with heart disease or other cardiovascular conditions, such as an arrhythmia or heart failure. It is important to address any cardiovascular risk factors or conditions to reduce risk for sudden cardiac arrest and death.

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