Conference Coverage

Myth busting: Sudden cardiac death in athletes



– Myths and misconceptions abound regarding the merits of universal incorporation of the resting 12-lead ECG into preparticipation cardiovascular screening of young athletes, Aaron L. Baggish, MD, declared at the annual Cardiovascular Conference at Snowmass sponsored by the American College of Cardiology.

Dr. Aaron L. Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School, Boston Bruce Jancin/MDedge News

Dr. Aaron L. Baggish

Dr. Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School, Boston, set out to pop the balloons of a handful of these widely floating myths. These are commonly held fictions: In an electronic poll at the outset of his talk, only one in five members of his large audience recognized all of the following boldface statements as false.

“Preparticipation cardiovascular screening (PPCVS) has been shown to reduce the incidence of sudden cardiac death (SCD) among young competitive athletes.”

FALSE. Not for PPCVS by history and physical examination alone, or with the addition of a screening 12-lead ECG. In Italy, where a cluster of high-profile sudden cardiac deaths led to passage of a 1982 national law mandating 12-lead ECG screening as part of the PPCVS, investigators presented studies purporting to demonstrate a subsequent reduction in the risk of SCD. But those studies were subsequently shown to be fraught with problems. And a high-quality study capable of convincingly demonstrating such a benefit would need to be prohibitively large and expensive. “Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen anytime soon,” advised Dr. Baggish, who is medical director for the Boston Marathon, as well as team cardiologist for Harvard University Athletics, the New England Patriots, the Boston Bruins, USRowing, and U.S. Soccer.

“Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the leading cause of sudden death among young competitive athletes.”

FALSE. A study of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) comprehensive database, with 4.2 million athlete-years of follow-up, showed that the most common cause of SCD was autopsy-negative sudden unexplained death (SUD), accounting for 25% of cases. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy was deemed the cause of 8% of the SCDs (Circulation. 2015 Jul 7;132[1]:10-9).

“The same thing has been shown in studies done in the United Kingdom and in Australia: The vast majority of people who drop dead at a young age have a totally normal-looking heart. Over the next 10 years, I suspect that one of the most important areas that we’ll be looking into will be this SUD area, perhaps using molecular autopsy to make some headway there,” according to the cardiologist.

SCD is rare. In the NCAA study, the incidence was 1 in 53,703 athlete-years. In sobering contrast, accidents, suicide, and homicide accounted for 50% of all deaths in the collegiate athletes.

“When you think about what’s important in terms of educating young people to be safe, the history and physical exam and 12-lead ECG are nowhere near as important as talking with them about minimizing accident risk and staying away from guns,” Dr. Baggish commented.


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