Preventing Sudden Death among Young Athletes
Q. This month, in the US, four athletes in their teens died while playing their sport. I remember that a couple of years ago, I read about a Filipino teenager, a star baseball player, who also collapsed while practicing. He survived but is now extremely handicapped. I wonder how often this tragic event occurs. What causes these sudden deaths? Is there a medical exam that teen athletes can undergo to detect any abnormality that can cause sudden death?
-Lenny P., Makati City
A. Although, as you said in your letter, four American teenage athletes died while playing their sport within a span of two weeks this month, the incidence of sudden death among athletes is really not that high. Statistics involving athletes who participate in endurance events in the US and UK suggest an incidence rate of 1 in 50,000-67,000 for the phenomenon. Most of the deaths occur among adolescents.
What causes sudden deaths among young athletes? A group of researchers analyzed a total of 158 cases of sudden deaths that occurred in trained athletes throughout the United States from 1985 through 1995. Their findings showed that most (134) of the athletes died of cardiovascular causes (i.e., of heart and blood vessel problems). The most common structural cardiovascular disease that accounted for the death of more than a third of the victims is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease that is characterized by an enlarged heart because of inflammation of the heart muscles.
An enlarged heart, however, is not always a sign of a diseased heart. Many athletes have an enlarged heart, but their cardiac enlargement is not a sign of a diseased, but rather of a very healthy heart. These extremely fit athletes have what is known as athletic heart syndrome. In these people, the hypertrophy of the muscles and widening of the chambers of the heart is the organ's way of adapting to strenuous endurance training. By enlarging, the heart is able to increase the volume of blood that it pumps out with every beat and thus, meet the increased demand for oxygen in the various parts of the body. …