While many people associate heart issues such as heart attacks and cardiac arrest with older adults, young athletes can also be at risk. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 2,000 people under the age of 25 die from sudden cardiac arrest each year.
Cardiac arrest is different from a heart attack. Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart unexpectedly stops beating. The risk is three times greater in competitive athletes. In young adults, it’s most common among high-school and college-aged athletes who play high-intensity sports such as soccer, football and basketball.
It seems illogical. Why would young, healthy and active athletes be at a higher risk for heart issues than the average young adult?
Sudden cardiac arrest has to do with the heart’s electrical circuitry or a structural problem in the heart. Unlike a heart attack where arteries are blocked, cardiac arrest is an electrical problem. If there’s an electrical short circuit, the heart is “quivering” instead of “squeezing.” This means it isn’t pumping blood to the brain and other vital organs. Death can result from this.
One of the most common of these electrical or structural problems is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), where the heart muscle is abnormally thickened. HCM is the most common cause of cardiac arrest found in athletes in the United States (approximately one-third of cases). In competitive athletes, there are often structural changes to the heart from intense exercise. When coupled with the sudden physical demands placed on the heart, the risk of sudden cardiac death increases.
It’s very difficult to prevent, but recognizing cardiac arrest is the first step. The warning signs–dizziness and shortness of breath–don’t always happen. Furthermore, athletes are goal-oriented and often ignore warning signs as they push their bodies to the point of exhaustion. If you see someone collapse, you should always call 911 immediately.
Cardiac arrest is time-crucial. Giving chest compressions and using an automated external defibrillator (AED) while you wait for help to arrive can make the difference between life and death.
While imaging tests like electrocardiograms (EKG) and echocardiograms can detect heart problems that may lead to cardiac arrest, the American Heart Association doesn’t routinely recommend these tests for everyone. Athletes should get their blood pressure and heartbeat checked at their yearly physical exam and let their doctor know about family medical history. If anything raises a red flag, more advanced tests may be necessary.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms that are unusual for them, it’s worth asking your doctor about it.