College athletes across the nation suffer from sudden cardiac death up to seven times more frequently than previously reported, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington.

Share story

College athletes across the nation suffer from sudden cardiac death up to seven times more frequently than previously reported, according to a study released Monday by researchers at the University of Washington.

The study found that, among the 400,000 athletes who participate in National Collegiate Athletic Association sports every year, basketball players have the highest rate of sudden cardiac death. The data also uncovered that women college athletes are at a far higher risk than previously believed.

Unlike previous studies, researchers used data from the NCAA and Parent Heart Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting young people from cardiac death. They narrowed their search to 17- to 24-year-olds who died in the period from January 2004 to December 2008.

They hope their findings will encourage schools to require a more vigorous screening for underlying heart conditions before athletes join sports teams.

Earlier studies have estimated the rate of sudden cardiac death among young athletes to be as low as 1 in 300,000, but the UW study found the rate is approximately 1 in 43,000.

Other key findings of the UW study include:

• Sudden cardiac death — defined by the American Heart Association as death resulting within minutes of an abrupt loss of heart function — is the leading medical cause of death for student athletes, accounting for 16 percent of college-athlete deaths.

• 45 student athletes died from sudden cardiac death during the examined five-year period, with 27 of the deaths occurring during play or less than one hour before or after.

• The rate of sudden cardiac death in female college athletes is 1 in 77,000, compared to earlier estimates that were as low as 1 in 1 million.

• After basketball players, lacrosse players have the highest rate of sudden cardiac death among college athletes, followed by swimmers, football players and cross-country runners.

• Black college athletes are three times more at risk for sudden cardiac death than white athletes. The only exception was found in Division I men’s basketball, where the risk was about 1 in 3,000 for both black and white players.

Among the common pre-existing conditions that cause sudden cardiac death in athletes are enlarged hearts and structural problems with arteries.

Researchers said they wanted to evaluate the true risk of sudden cardiac death to show schools that requiring more intense health screenings is worth the extra cost.

“If the aim of our sports physical is to prevent death on our playing field, we need to do better,” said Dr. Kimberly Harmon, lead researcher on this study and clinical professor at the Department of Family Medicine at UW.

Many schools require only that students fill out a family history regarding cardiac problems and have a physician listen to their hearts. More expensive, EKGs are necessary to properly screen athletes for heart conditions, Harmon said. The UW started to require EKGs on incoming freshman athletes last year, she said.

June Daugherty, head women’s basketball coach at Washington State University, strongly supports the push for more screening. As head coach of the UW women’s basketball team in 2002, one of her players, Kayla Burt, collapsed from heart failure and survived. Four and a half years later, Daugherty suffered a cardiac arrest, too.

Now, Daugherty is an advocate for requiring testing nationwide.

“The NCAA has an opportunity to take a stand in a positive way and mandate testing,” she said. “At the end of the day, what’s a life really cost?”

Burt, who is now an emergency medical technician and works in the emergency room at Valley Medical Center in Renton, also has become an advocate for better screening.

“You hate to see young kids losing their lives to something that they don’t even know about and something that may likely be preventable,” she said.

Brittney Wong: 206-464-3195 or bwong@seattletimes.com