About 1 in every 44,000 NCAA athletes suffers heart-related death, new study finds

About 1 in every 44,000 NCAA athletes dies of a cardiac problem every year, with the highest rate occurring among basketball players, according to the first comprehensive study of the problem. The results are higher than some experts had thought and suggest that increased screening of at least some players might reduce the death rate, researchers reported Monday in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Assn.

Dr. Kimberly Harmon, a sports medicine specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle, and her colleagues used newspaper reports, insurance claims and data from the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., the governing body for college athletics. About 400,000 students, ages 17 to 23, participate in NCAA-sanctioned sports. Tracking deaths from 2004 through 2008, the researchers found 273 deaths from all causes, 29% of which were from medical causes. Of the deaths from medical causes, 45 were cardiovascular-related sudden deaths. Overall, the team found that 1 in 43,770 athletes died annually of sudden cardiac deaths.

But the incidence varied dramatically by sport. The highest rate was in Division 1 basketball, with 1 death per 3,146 players per year. Lacrosse (1 in 23,357) and swimming (1 in 23,488) trailed well behind, with football coming in at 1 in 38,497. Cross-country running was lowest, at 1 in 41,695. Males (1 in 33,134) were more than twice as likely to die as females (1 in 76,696), while blacks (1 in 17,696) were much more likely to die than whites (1 in 58,653).

Some experts, as well as the International Olympic Committee, call for EKG screening of all athletes before they are allowed to play sports, but schools argue the tests are too costly and unwieldy. About 1 in every 6 EKGs, moreover, yields a false positive that requires further testing. Harmon suggests that, at the very least, athletes in the highest risk sports, such as basketball, receive more screening than they get now.