Past research may have underestimated the number of incidents in which college athletes died suddenly of cardiac-related deaths, according to a new study.
Comparing data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and media documents, researchers discovered that an estimated one in every 43,770 student-athletes died of sudden cardiac arrest every year. That makes this cause of death the No. 1 medical-related killer of college athletes.
This is a troubling number, especially because 58 percent of all men's Division I basketball players, 45 percent of all Division I football players and as 44 percent of all Division I female basketball players are Black: The risk was higher for African-Americans, who die at a rate of one out of every 17,696 per year, compared to white athletes' one out of every 58,653 per year.
Though the NCAA requires all student-athletes to submit to a full physical before participating in sports, Dr. Kimberly Harmon, of the University of Washington in Seattle, who conducted the study, recommends that athletic departments include a detailed medical history and an ECG to rule out the risk of cardiac issues. Researchers also suggested that sports officials employ automated external defibrillators in collegiate sports venues, particularly basketball, in which one out of every 3,126 per year die this way.
"A history and physical examination without an ECG are of questionable value and have been shown not to be cost-effective because of their poor sensitivity and specificity,” argues Harmon. “Targeting high-risk groups may prove a reasonable starting point to begin ECG screening programs in the United States."
In the past, studies limited their research to media reports, surveys after the fact, voluntary information, and catastrophic insurance claims made by the NCAA. Harmon's study collected the database kept by the NCAA of all student-athletes that have died and a database from a nonprofit group called Parent Heart Watch, which scans the media for news items about youth who died suddenly of cardiac arrest.