Of the more than 350,000 deaths that occur as a result of SCA each year, you might assume that only older adults need worry about this deadly condition. Think again. Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes. Most often, the death occurs during athletic training or competition.
What is SCA?
Often just called cardiac arrest, sudden cardiac arrest occurs suddenly and often without warning. Electrical problems in the heart cause a dangerously fast heart rate that interrupts blood flow. With pumping disrupted, the heart cannot pump blood to the body’s vital organs. Within seconds, a person loses consciousness and has no pulse. If SCA is not treated immediately, it can lead to sudden cardiac death (SCD) within minutes.
Fast Facts: Young Athletes & SCA
- In the United States, a young competitive athlete dies suddenly every three days.
- Young athletes are more than twice as likely to experience SCD than young non-athletes.
- Most victims are male (90%).
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is the leading cardiovascular cause of SCD (36%) in young athletes. (HCM is a disease that causes thickening of the heart muscle.)
- More than half of HCM sudden death victims are black athletes (52%).
- The average age when SCD occurs in young athletes is 17.5 years.
- The risk of SCD increases with age.
- More than two thirds of young athletes who die suddenly are basketball and football players (67%).
Coaches are key to preventing SCA in young athletes. With careful screening, coaches can refer athletes at risk to a heart doctor.
What Can You Do?
There are two simple things coaches can do to help prevent SCA in young athletes:
- Know the SCA risk factors. If you become aware of an athlete who has any of the risk factors listed below, recommend cardiac testing.
SCA Risk Factors
- Family history of unexpected, unexplained sudden death in a young person
- Fainting (syncope) or seizure during exercise, excitement or when startled
- Consistent or unusual chest pain and/or shortness of breath during exercise
About Cardiac Testing
If a student athlete displays any of the risk factors for SCA, refer them to a doctor for cardiac testing. Cardiac testing has the potential to identify hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) and save athletes from sudden cardiac death. HCM—a disease that causes thickening of the heart muscle—is the leading cardiovascular cause of SCD (36%) in young athletes.
Cardiac testing often includes two simple tests:
- An electrocardiogram (EKG) measures electrical activity in the heart. It has the potential to detect heart conditions that account for up to 60% of sudden deaths in young competitive athletes.
- An echocardiogram (echo), an ultrasound of the heart, takes moving pictures of the heart.
In one long-term study, screening athletes with cardiac testing reduced the number of sudden cardiac deaths by 89%.