When Isaiah Laurencin, 17, a Miramar High School offensive lineman, died last summer during training drills, some wondered how a seemingly healthy student athlete could die so suddenly.
More recently, in May, Norwegian swimmer Alexander Dale Oen, a London Olympics medal favorite in the 100 meter breaststroke, died suddenly at a pre-Olympic training camp in Arizona at age 26. Oen’s death, from a hardening of the arteries by plaque buildup, was hereditary, a medical examiner reported.
Both deaths were classified as sudden cardiac death, a condition that has led many physicians to push for mandatory cardio screenings of young athletes to help detect potential abnormalities.
Sudden cardiac death often is the result of a congenital heart abnormality, the most common of which is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle becomes too thick and which typically develops during the teenage years. The condition worsens as a child goes through puberty and, as with Oen, is often an inherited condition. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is usually the factor in nearly 50 percent of all cases. Abnormalities in the arteries leading to the heart can also cause life-threatening arrhythmias. Genetic diseases like QT long and short syndromes, Brugada syndrome and catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT) can account for about 15 percent of sudden cardiac death cases among the young.
Myocarditis viral infections of the heart muscle, commonly occurring with colds, usually go away, says Dr. Robert Myerburg, a professor of medicine and physiology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. But myocarditis can be responsible for nearly 20 percent of the cases of sudden death among young athletes when ignored.
“If any kids have heart rhythm problems, shortness of breath or pain in the chest, when they have a bad cold, they should be held out of athletics until it heals,” Myerburg says.
The use of recreational drugs, like cocaine, can also damage the heart and lead to sudden cardiac death. Energy drinks, which contain high amounts of caffeine, act as a stimulant and could lead to dangerous heart rhythms for those young people who have a predisposition to heart arrhythmia, warns Dr. Steven Lipshultz, a pediatric cardiologist with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “It’s probably not a good idea for any kid to drink them,” he says.
In most cases, the athlete feels no symptoms before the event turns fatal. But for some there are warnings: unexplained fainting spells prior to the collapse, chest pains, heart palpitations or shortness of breath. Many times these warnings are unheeded, especially among competitive high school athletes who fear being taken out of a game or risking a college scholarship.
The do-it-for-the-team mentality can be deadly, warns Lipshultz.
“Let’s say you’re not in good condition, you watch a lot of sports on the easy chair and occasionally go out. If you get winded, you’ll stop. You won’t surpass the governor in your brain that says, ‘I don’t feel good.’ But if you’re playing competitive football or basketball, are you going to say in the last two minutes you don’t feel good? You’re targeted as a wimp. That’s where we are concerned and identify kids as a higher risk.”