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Feb 27, 2014

Sudden Death in College Athletes: Cause for Concern?

Ten-year study finds risk of sudden cardiac death among college athletes is actually lower than in the general population.

When a young, seemingly healthy athlete suffers sudden cardiac death, the first question is “why?” followed by “how could this have been prevented?” After all, competitive athletes should be the most heart-healthy out of all of us and there had to be warning signs when someone is at risk for sudden cardiac death. But according to a recent study, sudden cardiac death is extremely rare among college athletes and prevention is especially difficult in this healthy population.

Published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, this study analyzed all cases of sudden death that occurred among college athletes during the last 10 years. For research purposes, they included all types of “sudden” or unexpected deaths such as suicide, drug overdose and, of course, sudden death due to cardiovascular causes. By doing so, they were able to determine how frequently these deaths occurred among college athletes, which is useful information for prevention efforts.

Based on data from two registries (the U.S. National Sudden Death in Athletes Registry and the National Collegiate Athletic Association), researchers found that a total of 182 college athletes suffered sudden death between 2002 and 2011 among a total of more than 4 million athletes. And after analyzing these cases, researchers reported a few key findings.

First, 65% of these deaths were due to non-cardiovascular causes, meaning most deaths were unrelated to heart disease. Among the 182 cases included in the study, suicide and drug use were responsible for nearly one-third of all deaths. As such, authors argue that efforts to prevent suicide and drug use are important for preventing such tragic deaths among college athletes.

The second important finding pertained to the 35% of deaths that resulted from heart disease. With 64 sudden cardiac deaths during this 10-year period, researchers concluded that risk of sudden cardiac death among college athletes is actually lower than in the general population. And perhaps most importantly, widespread heart screenings would likely not have helped prevent many of these cases.

In recent years, experts have debated using a heart test called an electrocardiogram to pre-screen college athletes in hope of catching any abnormalities that may increase risk of sudden cardiac death. But according to this study, screening is not always reliable and would have missed many of these cases.

Instead of screenings, authors stress the importance of placing AEDs (automatic external defibrillators) in public places, including colleges. When someone’s heart suddenly stops beating, AEDs greatly increase chances of survival and these devices can be used by untrained bystanders. And rather than focusing solely on heart disease among college athletes, authors hope that colleges expand suicide prevention and drug control efforts to avoid these types of tragic deaths among college students.
Read the full study 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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