Teen Athlete Deaths Revive Debate on Heart Screenings

Filed under: In The News, Health & Safety: Teens

Teen athlete deaths

Classmates say goodbye to Wes Leonard at a basketball game the day after his funeral. Credit: Dennis R.J. Geppert, The Holland Sentinel/AP

Four recent sudden deaths among teen athletes have spurred experts to renew the debate on whether or not heart screenings for young sports participants should be required.

In the last two weeks, Michigan high school basketball player Wes Leonard died playing basketball from cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart; Matthew Hammerdorfer, 17, died playing rugby in Fort Collins, Colo., due to cardiac arrest and North Carolina 16-year-old Javaris Brinkley died of heart failure after playing basketball, CNN reports. Sarah Landauer, 17, a soccer and track star from Gainesville, Fla., collapsed at a track practice, but the cause of death has not yet been released.

About 50 to 100 sudden deaths occur among athletes in middle school, high school and college every year, Dr. Marlon Rosenbaum, associate clinical professor of medicine and pediatrics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, tells CNN.

The most common cause of sudden death among young athletes is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, when the heart is thickened and enlarged, particularly in young, African-American athletes, Rosenbaum tells the network.

The recent deaths have brought new attention to the dangers of congenital heart defects, and are reviving an ongoing debate about whether heart screening for young athletes is required.

"A more complete physical and more attention to details certainly is indicated, and I think that this is highlighted, unfortunately, by when we see the catastrophic events, such as the last two weeks," Dr. Roosevelt Gilliam, a cardiologist at HealtHealtHHealthcare Medical Group in Jonesboro, Ark., tells CNN. The group is part of a community-based effort to screen all athletes in his area for health problems.

Already, some school districts, including Battle Ground Public Schools in Battle Ground, Wa., are offering free heart screenings to middle- and high school-aged athletes. Battle Ground co-sponsors "Young Champions Heart Screening Clinics" with Southwest Washington Medical Center Heart and Vascular Center.

But just last week, a new study found mandatory electrocardiogram (ECG) screening programs in Italy and Israel had no impact on the number of athlete deaths, Reuters reports.

More and more countries, as well as the International Olympic Committee and other sports organizations, are taking the better safe than sorry approach, and are requiring that athletes get a screening that includes an ECG before participating in sports, according to CNN. The test measures the heart's electrical activity, and abnormalities may indicate an underlying problem.

Meanwhile, researchers are exploring other tests that could pinpoint these heart-related deaths in student athletes, CNN reports.

"We're looking for uncommon events in large populations, and it's not clear how to do it," Alfred Bove, a cardiologist in Philadelphia and past president of the American College of Cardiology, tells CNN.

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