Screen a heart, save a life


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The tragedy of a young athlete dying is sometimes compounded by the discovery that he or she had an undiagnosed heart condition. And while those deaths due to heart rhythm disturbances are rare in young people (about 3,000 a year), some health experts believe heart screenings are the way to prevent those deaths.

A new study found benefits in screenings, particularly an echocardiogram, or an ultrasound of the heart that provides more details than an x-ray; and an electrocardiogram, or EKG, which evaluates the heart’s electrical activity. Researchers collected health histories and did screenings on 134 male and female Maryland high school athletes at the state track and field championships in 2008. They specifically looked for cardiac abnormalities such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or thickening of the heart muscle that makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood.


The screenings included taking the athletes’ blood pressure and listening for abnormal heart rhythms or murmurs, in addition to the echocardiogram and EKG.

Researchers found no life-threatening heart defects among the study participants. However, abnormalities were discovered in 36 athletes, including high blood pressure, elevated blood pressure, and low blood pressure. Of those irregularities, 22 were found via EKG alone, nine by echocardiogram alone, and five were discovered via both tests.

In a news release, study co-author Dr. Theodore Abraham of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said, ‘If you are going to screen, it has to be comprehensive. An EKG does show you a lot, but it doesn’t tell you the whole story. The advantage of a comprehensive screening is that it is holistic, rather than being pinpoint.’

The study was presented yesterday at the American Heart Assn.’s annual Scientific Sessions conference in Orlando, Fla.

--Jeannine Stein