Sudden Deaths in Young Competitive Athletes: Analysis of 1866 Deaths in the United States, 1980–2006

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Background—Sudden deaths in young competitive athletes are highly visible events with substantial impact on the physician and lay communities. However, the magnitude of this public health issue has become a source of controversy.Methods and Results—To estimate the absolute number of sudden deaths in US competitive athletes, we have assembled a large registry over a 27-year period using systematic identification and tracking strategies. A total of 1866 athletes who died suddenly (or survived cardiac arrest), 19±6 years of age, were identified throughout the United States from 1980 to 2006 in 38 diverse sports. Reports were less common during 1980 to 1993 (576 [31%]) than during 1994 to 2006 (1290 [69%], P<0.001) and increased at a rate of 6% per year. Sudden deaths were predominantly due to cardiovascular disease (1049 [56%]), but causes also included blunt trauma that caused structural damage (416 [22%]), commotio cordis (65 [3%]), and heat stroke (46 [2%]). Among the 1049 cardiovascular deaths, the highest number of events in a single year was 76 (2005 and 2006), with an average of 66 deaths per year (range 50 to 76) over the last 6 years; 29% occurred in blacks, 54% in high school students, and 82% with physical exertion during competition/training, whereas only 11% occurred in females (although this increased with time; P=0.023). The most common cardiovascular causes were hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (36%) and congenital coronary artery anomalies (17%).Conclusions—In this national registry, the absolute number of cardiovascular sudden deaths in young US athletes was somewhat higher than previous estimates but relatively low nevertheless, with a rate of <100 per year. These data are relevant to the current debate surrounding preparticipation screening programs with ECGs and also suggest the need for systematic and mandatory reporting of athlete sudden deaths to a national registry.

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