Aug 03, 2022

Young Athletes Dying of Heart Attacks: Understanding the Very Real Risk

Young Athletes Dying of Heart Attacks: Understanding the Very Real Risk

We usually think of heart attacks or sudden cardiac arrest happening to older people. After all, heart disease is the leading cause of death in adults in the United States. So we’re shocked when we hear about young athletes dying of heart attacks or sudden cardiac arrest. However, sudden cardiac arrest is actually the number one cause of death of student-athletes.

A close-up red heart with a white cross held in a doctor’s hand symbolizes athletes dying of heart attacks.

Sudden cardiac arrest, when the heart suddenly stops beating, is as frightening as it is unexpected. But in many instances, it could be preventable, or at least its risk recognized. That’s why, at A-G, we’ve made it a mission to spread the word about this silent killer through our sponsorship of Simon’s Heart and partnership with Athletic Heart. Knowledge really is power in the fight to keep your athlete safe from this unseen threat.

Knowing the Risks and Warning Signs of Cardiac Arrest in Athletes

With sudden cardiac arrest, the heart abruptly loses its normal rhythm and stops pumping blood. This is usually caused by an unknown structural or electrical abnormality of the heart and triggered by exercise.

The difficulty with sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes is that its risk is usually not recognized or diagnosed. In most cases, it seems to occur without warning, and we see the athlete collapse on the field as it happens. But the good news is that there are some warning signs if we know to look out for them.

According to Simon’s Heart, warning signs include:

  • Fainting or seizure during or right after exercise
  • Chest pain with exercise
  • Shortness of breath with exercise
  • Unexplained shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Racing heart

While some of these are the natural result of exercise, any player experiencing chest pain or seizures should seek medical help. In addition, keeping tabs on players exhibiting the other symptoms can help you stay on top of the situation if the symptoms elevate. Encouraging players to tell you if they are uncomfortable or experiencing heightened reactions to exercise is important, too.

One other risk for which to look out is if anyone in the athlete’s family has suddenly and unexpectedly died under age 50. If this has happened, it’s wise to visit a physician or pediatric cardiologist.

Unfortunately, even with these warning signs, the chances of SCA happening are still high. And, if left untreated, death occurs in a few minutes. Fortunately, knowledge and preparation can make a big difference for a positive outcome.

Seconds Count: What to do When a Sudden Cardiac Arrest Happens

If a young athlete experiences SCA, two life-saving treatments can be administered while waiting for emergency help.

  1. CPR: With cardiopulmonary resuscitation, use chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth breathing on the youth. This helps keep the heart pumping blood throughout the body until help arrives or if an AED isn’t available.
  2. AED: Automated external defibrillators send electronic shocks to the heart to try to restore its beating and rhythm. The devices come with detailed instructions. Having an AED on hand can increase the survival rate by as much as 80%.

It’s also important for organizations to have an EAP (Emergency Action Plan) detailing the most common medical emergencies players face, along with instructions on what to do if sudden cardiac arrest is suspected. With CPR, AED, and EAP in place, much of SCA’s risk is reduced.

How to Prevent Cardiac Arrest

Making more people aware of what to look for and what to do if it happens can go a long way toward preventing SCA or saving a life. But one of the most important preventative measures is to have a heart screening.

  • Simon’s Heart offers free student heart screenings that will diagnose structural or electrical heart conditions that could lead to sudden cardiac arrest.
  • Through our partnership with Athletic Heart Metabolic and Cardiac Evaluations, athletic departments can have an affordable, scalable, and specialized diagnostic imaging solution.

If diagnosed with a heart condition, proper medical guidance can help prevent future risk.

Get More SCA Facts from Simon’s Heart

Simon’s Heart is a nonprofit that was started for a boy who died before his time. The organization’s goal is to help save other children and families from the heartbreak of undiagnosed and unexpected heart conditions. We love working with them to spread the word about how to help prevent this unpredictable situation.

Would you like more information from Simon’s Heart about SCA? Download their flyers:

  • Acronyms Save Lives
  • A Fact Sheet For Students
  • Can Your Heart Just Stop?

You can also read more about Simon’s Heart here. (Donations are always welcomed.)

About A-G Administrators

We’ve been protecting students and student-athletes at thousands of K-12 schools, colleges and universities, events, camps, and more for nearly 40 years from the high medical costs of accidents. Reducing premium and claim costs by decreasing risk and keeping students and student-athletes healthy is what we do best. You can read about Athletic Heart, Sparta Science, and our other risk management programs here.

If you’d like to find out what we can do for your program, please don’t hesitate to reach out for a quote.


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