Are Young Athletes At Risk Of Sudden Cardiac Arrest

As providers of potentially life-saving equipment, it goes without saying that we get to hear powerful stories of how defibrillators have saved the day.


Sadly though, not all of the stories have such happy endings. We’re not here to spread doom and gloom – it’s just heartbreaking to hear that a life was lost which could have been prevented and the only way to do that is through increased awareness.

One of our missions is to highlight Sudden Cardiac Arrest – also known as Sudden Cardiac Death or Sudden Athlete Death – as this is often undiscovered, sometimes until it’s too late. Most of the cardiac deaths we are familiar with are caused by cardiac arrest occurring in older adults, usually those with coronary artery disease.

However, in terms of the leading cause of death in young athletes, cardiac arrest is a very guilty party with no clear indicators of why.

If everyone took just a few minutes to inform themselves on Sudden Cardiac Death and what causes it, many lives – particularly young ones – could be saved. Increased awareness may help you identify what is happening and buy you enough time to act on it.

Care to help us with our mission? Read on…


Is Sudden Cardiac Death Common In Young People?


Sudden Cardiac Death isn’t expected in the younger generation and it certainly isn’t a prolific killer either. It’s relatively rare, especially in people under 35 with possibly 1 in 50,000 sudden cardiac deaths a year occurring in young athletes.

In a majority of cases, it’s an undiscovered heart abnormality at the root of it. Increased physical activity such as sports can often be the trigger and there are also indicators that it is more prevalent in males than females.

We don’t want everyone panicking though – there are millions of people taking part in activities of various levels of exertion regularly without incident.


What Causes Sudden Cardiac Death In Young People?


The triggers of sudden cardiac death vary amongst young people but most often a heart abnormality is the cause.

Sometimes the heart can be caused to beat out of control which is known as ventricular fibrillation.

There are some clear causes of sudden cardiac death in young people which most commonly include Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), Long QT syndrome and Coronary artery abnormalities amongst other factors:

  • Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) Despite being commonly inherited, this condition often goes undetected. It isn’t usually fatal as a condition in itself, however, in athletes under 30, it is the most regularly identified cause of cardiac sudden death. HCM is where there is a thickening of the walls of the heart muscle. This thicker muscle can disrupt the heart’s electrical system, bringing on fast or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), which can then lead to sudden cardiac death.
  • Long QT syndrome This disorder is often inherited too and is where the heart rhythm is subjected to chaotic or fast heartbeats. This can lead to fainting and also increases the risk of sudden death.
  • Coronary Artery Abnormalities Sometimes an abnormality in the arteries can restrict the flow of blood to the heart. People can be born with arteries which don’t connect normally, meaning that during exercise when the arteries can become compressed, insufficient blood is reaching the heart.
  • Structural Heart Abnormalities Some of the causes of sudden cardiac death in young people can include abnormalities in the heart’s structure such as heart muscle abnormalities. Undetected congenital heart disease which was present at birth may also limit the heart when put under additional exertion.

Other causes of sudden death include inflamed heart muscle which can be triggered by viruses and other illnesses. Other electrical system abnormalities such as Brugada syndrome can cause sudden death too.

In extreme circumstances, a severe blow to the chest with something like a hockey puck or person can cause sudden cardiac death (Commotio Cordis). This can happen to anyone if the blow lands at the wrong time in the heart’s electrical cycle as it can trigger ventricular fibrillation.



What Symptoms Or Warning Signs Should I Look Out For?


Many sudden cardiac deaths happen without warning. There are however some indications that you can look for:

  • Syncope – Unexplained Fainting Fainting during physical activity can be a sign that your heart has problems, so we’d suggest consulting a doctor to explore the problem.
  • Sudden Cardiac Death Is In The Family History If there have been unexplained deaths in your family for under 50’s, this could be a significant warning sign. In this instance, we’d recommend discussing screening options with your doctor too.
  • Chest Pain Or Shortness Of Breath These can be caused by other health problems such as asthma, but can also indicate an increased risk of sudden cardiac death.

Can We Prevent Sudden Cardiac Death In Young People


Whilst it can’t always be avoided, there are some measures you can take to manage the risk of Sudden Cardiac Death. Sometimes there may be medical or surgical treatment which could reduce your risks but this will be dictated by your condition. Doctors will also recommend that anyone with a high risk of sudden cardiac death should avoid competitive sports.

One popular measure which is taken to restore a regular heartbeat for those with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). This is implanted in your chest to continuously monitor your heartbeat and if a life-threatening arrhythmia occurs, the device delivers electrical shocks to restore the heart rhythm again.


Should Young Athletes Be Screened For Sudden Death Risk Factors?


There are very mixed opinions within the medical community over whether we should be screening young athletes to highlight those with an increased risk of sudden death.

Where there is a family history or identified risks are present which would cause sudden cardiac death, screening on a scheduled basis is always recommended.

As it currently stands, there isn’t a clear indicator that routinely examining athletes before clearing them to play competitive sports is preventing sudden cardiac death. What it might do though is help to identify those who are at increased risk.

Italy is one of the countries which screens young people with an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to record the electrical signals in the heart. This type of screening is expensive though and can also produce false-positive results. The impact of incorrectly diagnosing a potentially healthy person as having a high risk of sudden heart death would cause extreme and unnecessary worry. This is one of the reasons why there is still such a divided opinion on whether screening should be conducted.


Should Young People Avoid Physical Activity If They Have A Heart Defect?


If you have a heightened risk of sudden cardiac death, you should consult your doctor before embarking on physical activity to establish the level of maximum exertion for you. The safety of you being able to participate in sports and exercise will depend upon the severity of your condition.

In some cases where conditions such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy are present, you don’t need to avoid exercise but it’s suggested that you avoid most competitive sports. If you already have an ICD, it is also recommended that you avoid impact sports.

As we said at the start of our message, Sudden Cardiac Arrest is still relatively rare but knowing what to look for could be a matter of life or death. If you are regularly around athletes or people exerting themselves, take a few moments to familiarise yourself with the first aid contacts and processes around you.

One factor we’re extremely happy to report on is that besides our own personal testimonials, figures show that survival rates in athletes after sudden cardiac arrest are higher when automated external defibrillators are used.

As you can see, there are so many scenarios where Sudden Cardiac Death could happen, you never know when having a defibrillator on your premises will be needed. What we do know is that unlike a heart attack, Sudden Cardiac Arrest or Sudden Athlete Death can strike anybody at any time without warning.

Having your defib on hand saves lives when the precious minutes’ matter. If you’d like more information on our range of defibrillators and how simple it is to have a defib available on your premises too, get in touch here and we’ll be happy to help.

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