Young Athletes: Healthy And Young But Still Susceptible To Cardiac Arrest

No one expects a young athlete to suddenly fall prey to a heart attack, but it does happen. And according to the "New York Times," this frightening condition is not as rare as once thought. In fact, in this nation alone, approximately 2,000 young people who are under the age of 25 die annually after having a sudden cardiac arrest. What's worse is that many people assume that athletes are so healthy that they have some sort of immunity to cardiac arrest, which is actually -- and surprisingly -- somewhat opposite of the truth. The risk of a cardiac arrest is actually three times greater for competitive athletes. 

Should Young Athletes Be Screened?

Because of the potential of sudden cardiac arrest, some sanctioning bodies and educational organizations are pushing to have young athletes screened so that they can detect possible heart-related concerns. For instance, the NCAA is currently working on guidelines that would include a standardized pre-sports checkup and a checklist. The latter would include questions about an athlete's family and personal health history. Through this standardized checkup and checklist, the NCAA is hoping to be able to flag athletes who may require additional cardiac testing. 

Symptoms You Should Be Concerned About

Young athletes are typically the picture of good health, so even when they are exhibiting symptoms of a cardiac problem, they are often ignored. Some symptoms that may be signs of a potential cardiac problem include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pains
  • Unexplained fainting during activity, also known as syncope
  • Seizures
  • Abnormal heart rhythms

In addition, a family history that includes unexplained deaths under the age of 50 should also be a red flag that your child may be at potential risk of sudden cardiac arrest. 

What You Should Do

If your family has a history of heart problems or early deaths or your young athlete has been having symptoms that concern you, it's important to have them evaluated by a heart doctor even if your high school or college program doesn't require it. 

You can also ask that your child's high school or college program have an automated external defibrillator (AED) as well as trained personnel onsite so that help is available for a person going into cardiac arrest. These devices are programmed to guide a rescuer in its use and can potentially save a person's life. According to the American Red Cross, if a defibrillator is used within three minutes of a cardiac arrest, that person's chance of survival can rise to between 30 and 70 percent. Without a defibrillator, that person's chance falls to less than five percent. 

Causes of Cardiac Death in Young Athletes

The following are a few causes of sudden cardiac arrest that your physician may look for:

  • Long QT syndrome. This is an inherited heart disorder. Those who have this condition experience fast and chaotic heartbeats, which can in turn lead to fainting or seizure. 
  • Ventricular fibrillation. In this condition, the heart's lower chambers begin to quiver chaotically, which means that the heart is no longer beating as it should and blood is not being pumped through the person's system.
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This is a genetic disorder that can cause abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, which makes it harder for it to pump blood. This condition is believed to be the cause of approximately 40 percent of sudden cardiac deaths in young athletes. 

If your child should show signs of being at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, your physician will discuss with you whether or not they should participate in competitive sports or not. In some cases, your child's health-care provider may suggest that your child stay away from competitive sports but still continue to exercise. Don't hesitate to contact a doctor if your child has chest pain or any other signs discussed in this article. Being in good athletic shape doesn't mean they're immune to all health problems.