Heart Attacks in Teen Athletes: July 14, 2011

Each year more than 3,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 34 die from a sudden heart attack. Many are athletes.

“When you hear about some young athlete who’s in great shape otherwise, that he died suddenly of some unknown reason then we actually statistically know there’s risk of abnormality in the heart called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” says Dr. Vladimir Illic cardiologist with Lee Memorial Health System.

That’s a condition where the heart muscle thickens abnormally, without any outward symptoms. Detecting the condition starts with a physical exam, which looks at blood pressure and checks for heart murmurs and arrhythmias.

“Those conditions tend to run in families so family history would be very important,” says Dr. Illic.

If it triggers further investigation, some experts advise two tests: one is an EKG, which measures electrical rhythms in the heart. The other is the echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound.

“Which is the other sonic examination of the heart to assess cardiac structure, chambers, function and lots of those reasons for sudden cardiac death could be found that way,” says Dr. Illic.

Testing all teen athletes has proven controversial because of the expense. But identifying just who might need the additional screening could save lives.

“Physical examinations an EKG and echocardiogram should give you an answer you know does that person have that condition,” says Dr. Illic.

The chance of finding an abnormality may be small, but the consequences of missing one could be catastrophic.