Heart Screenings Could Provide Earlier Detection in Young Athletes

A heart specialist at Allegheny General Hospital says screenings can detect underlying medical abnormalities.

Cases of younger people – particularly young athletes – dying of sudden cardiac arrest are tragic.

Although they lead active and healthy lifestyles, experts say young athletes are more than twice as likely to suffer from sudden cardiac arrest when compared to non-athletes,  and they say screenings could help detect underlying medical abnormalities before it's too late. 

Dr. William Belden, a cardiologist at Allegheny General Hospital said sudden cardiac arrest in younger people, like the recent death of a 23-year-old former North Allegheny High School football player, aren't as common as in older adults, but they are notable. 

“They're notable because they're rare and because they happen in young, healthy kids," said Belden, who specializes in electrophysiology, also known as a heart rhythm specialist.

Belden said the most common cause of sudden cardiac death is a genetic disorder known as “hypertrophic obstructive cardio myopathy,” or HOCM. The condition occurs where the muscle fibers get very thick and are arranged in a disorganized fashion. Some symptoms are shortness of breath, feeling dizzy and a hard heartbeat.

Athletes with the heart abnormality become more at risk because exercise can put their hearts in dangerous life-threatening rhythms, Belden said.

“It’s the main reason why athletes drop dead,” he said.

North Allegheny graduate and former football player Kyle Chase Johnson died Sunday while running in Pittsburgh's half-marathon.

Allegheny County Medical examiner Dr. Karl Williams said Johnson had an inherited abnormality of the coronary artery system. A funeral and memorial service is planned for next week. 

A few weeks ago, a Florida teen suddenly collapsed into cardiac arrest at Sewickley Academy while participating in the Pittsburgh JamFest, an annual tournament that attracts top- 16- and 17-year old talents from up and down the East Coast and the Midwest, along with college coaches.

Sewickley Academy Athletic Director Win Palmer said the teen was jogging to defense when he started to shake and suddenly collapsed on the court.

One of the game officials happened to be a doctor, an athletic trainer was carrying an automated external defibrillators (AEDs), a portable lifesaving device, and 911 was quickly called, contributing factors Palmer believes resulted in a less tragic outcome.

“Everyone took the right precautions and the young man is OK,” Palmer said.  

The male was treated at Allegheny General, where Belden said doctors discovered the teen's physician had placed an implantable heart monitor on him to record heart rhythms over concerns he had been passing out.

Belden said many European countries, such as Italy, do screen teen and adult athletes, and were able to reduce the incident rate by 89 percent over 25 years. Some are calling for similar screening programs in the U.S., but Belden said others argue that such tests would be too expensive considering the numbers of kids who do sports.


Darla Varrenti May 10, 2013 at 07:33 PM
Check out www.nickoftimefoundation.org for information on youth heart screening programs in the community. Sudden Cardiac Arrest is the leading cause of death in exercising young athletes- It's not so RARE! Make sure your child's physicals include an EKG.


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