It’s always surprising and heartbreaking to hear about a young athlete dying suddenly. Now a new study finds that in many of these cases, an underlying heart problem was already present.
The researchers found that about one-third of sudden cardiac deaths were caused by the heart condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This condition causes a portion of the heart’s wall to grow abnormally thick, which hinders the heart’s performance. There are often no symptoms, study authors said.
This heart condition is often inherited, according to the American Heart Association.
About 40 percent of sudden deaths in males were caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. More than 50 percent of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy occurred in minority males. Just 1 percent of these cases were found in minority females, the study published in The American Journal of Medicine found.
“We have established that hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in male athletes and is an underappreciated cause of sudden death in male African-American and minority athletes, but is a rare cause of death in female athletes,” lead investigator Dr. Barry Maron said in a journal news release. Maron is from Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
The study identified more than 2,400 sudden deaths between 1980 and 2011. The deaths occurred among competitive athletes while engaged in 29 different sports. The athletes were between the ages of 13 and 25. More than 840 of those deaths were heart-related, the study showed.
The researchers found that:
- Male athletes were 6.5 times more likely to die from sudden cardiac death than females.
- Blacks and other minorities had death rates nearly five times higher from sudden cardiac death than whites.
- Sudden cardiac death was three times more likely among minority male and female basketball players than white players.
- Less than 5 percent of athletes who died had structurally normal hearts.
Certain heart problems were more common in female athletes who died suddenly. These included defects in the heart’s arteries present from birth and conditions that cause potentially dangerous irregular heartbeats, the study found.
The new findings highlight the potential value of the American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology’s recommendations to screen minorities and others for heart conditions before participation in athletics, Maron said.
The American Heart Association has more on heart screening for young athletes.