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Testing Young Athletes for Heart Defects May Save Lives

To prevent sudden cardiac death, researchers recommend electrocardiograms

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 9 (HealthDay News) -- Young athletes should be tested for heart abnormalities to prevent sudden cardiac death triggered by vigorous exercise, new Dutch research suggests.

Sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of death in young athletes, but no one knows how common it is, as figures vary and mandatory reporting does not exist, the study authors noted.

The idea of screening for potentially deadly heart abnormalities in athletes before they embark on a career in competitive sports has been debated for years.

Critics say that electrocardiograms (ECGs) pick up too many "normal irregularities" that result as the body adapts to the demands of competitive sports, leading to unnecessary alarm and needless investigations. Opponents also have questioned the cost effectiveness of testing.

But the findings, published online in September in the first of a series of quarterly partnership issues between the British Journal of Sports Medicine and the International Olympic Committee, may silence some of the critics.

The researchers screened 371 athletes between the ages of 12 and 35 over two years. They found that EKG produced false positive results for 47 athletes, or 11 percent of the group, which they declared an acceptable rate. EKG found heart problems in 10 athletes, four of whom were restricted from further participation in sports.

To detect one athlete with potentially deadly cardiovascular disease, 143 had to be screened, a number that is within acceptable limits, the researchers explained in a news release from the journal's publisher.

In another review of the available evidence, researchers found that trying to pick up potentially fatal heart abnormalities through questionnaires and physical exams alone is ineffective.

And, because the survival rate is so low, relying on the use of defibrillators at an event is not considered a viable alternative, the research shows.

"Health-care governing bodies need to be convinced that now is the time for universal [EKG] screening of all young athletes and make the necessary provisions for nationwide screening programs to commence," the study authors concluded.

More information

The American Heart Association has more information on sudden cardiac death.

-- Dennis Thompson

SOURCE: BMJ Journals, news release, Sept. 7, 2009

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