Study supports heart screening for young athletes

The tragedy of a young athlete dying is sometimes compounded by the discovery that he or she had an undiagnosed heart condition. A new study suggests that comprehensive screenings could be the answer.

Dr. Aurelio Pinheiro of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and colleagues collected health histories and conducted screenings on 134 male and female Maryland high school athletes attending the state track and field championships in 2008. They specifically looked for cardiac abnormalities such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle that makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood.

The screenings included an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart that provides more details than an X-ray), an electrocardiogram, or EKG, which evaluates the heart’s electrical activity, and other tests, such as taking the athletes’ blood pressure and listening for abnormal heart rhythms or murmurs.

The researchers found no life-threatening heart defects among the study participants. However, abnormalities of some kind were discovered in 36 athletes.Of those irregularities, 22 were found via EKG alone, nine by echocardiogram alone and five by both tests.

The findings argue for routine testing of athletes, the authors say. They also suggest that such testing should be comprehensive and not, for example, reliant just on an EKG or an echocardiogram.

Deaths due to heart rhythm disturbances are rare in young people (about 3,000 a year). The study was presented last week at the American Heart Assn.'s annual scientific sessions conference in Orlando, Fla.