March 15, 2007 / 4:31 PM / 12 years ago

Screening spots heart trouble in student-athletes

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The number of cases of young athletes suddenly dying while playing their sport could be reduced with a 12-point screening process, the American Heart Association wants parents, coaches, and school administrators to know.

A “yes” answer to any one of 12 screening questions may signal a heightened risk for sudden cardiac death in young athletes, according to an article in the AHA’s journal Circulation.

Five of the 12 questions ask about personal symptoms: Do you experience chest pain/discomfort upon exertion?; unexplained fainting or near-fainting?; excessive and unexplained fatigue associated with exercise? Do you have a heart murmur? Do you have high blood pressure?

Three family-related questions ask: Has one or more relatives died of heart disease (sudden or otherwise) before age 50? Do you have a close relative under age 50 with disability from heart disease? Do you have specific knowledge of certain heart conditions in family members, like “cardiomyopathy” in which the heart cavity or wall becomes enlarged or heart rhythm disturbances?

The final four items call for a health examiner to rule out high blood pressure, heart murmur, a congenital disorder that weakens the heart muscle called Marfan syndrome, and narrowing of the aorta (the main artery carrying blood from the heart to the rest of the body), which is accomplished by checking the athlete’s pulses.

As mentioned, any “yes” answer could foretell heart trouble in would-be student-athletes and would signal the need for further pre-participation screening, the AHA notes in an updated scientific statement on the topic.

About one in every 200,000 high school athletes dies suddenly from cardiovascular disease, and intense exertion in sports like basketball and football increases the risk of sudden cardiac death.

Dr. Barry J. Maron, chair of the AHA writing group noted in a statement that while the frequency of sudden cardiac deaths in high school and college athletes “appears to be relatively low, it is more common than previously thought and does represent a substantive public health problem.”

According to the AHA, there has been marked improvement in overall adherence to potentially life-saving heart screening processes for young people participating in sports.

As an example, a 1997 study found 45 percent of states had inadequate sudden cardiac death screening processes in place for young athletes, while in 2005 a review found 81 percent of states now support adequate screening processes.

SOURCE: Circulation, March 12, 2007.

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