College Athletes and Sudden Cardiac Death: Why Do Male Basketball Players Have Such a High Risk?

There’s an interesting story in today’s Wall Street Journal, by Katherine Hobson about a new method some cardiologists have come up with to better diagnose life-threatening heart conditions among student athletes. Apparently, since the hearts of well-conditioned athletes sometimes put out more electrical voltage than average, their ECG’s can often look like that of someone with a heart problem. This has led to an underestimation of the risks that sudden cardiac death (SCD) poses to student athletes, according to the study, even though it’s their leading medical cause of death during exercise. The findings were published this month in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. You can read the abstract here.

What really caught my eye though was an info-graphic the WSJ ran next to the story. Using data from Circulation, the graphic depicts the overall rates of SCD, from high to low, per year from 2004 to 2008 among NCAA college athletes, broken out by different sports. I’ve reproduced it in a table below:

 

Overall Men Women
Basketball 1 in 11,394 1 in 6,993 1 in 37,799
Swimming 1 in 21,293 1 in 34,552 1 in 16,457
Lacrosse 1 in 23,357 1 in 19,770 1 in 30,531
Football 1 in 38,497 1 in 38,497 N/A
Cross-Country 1 in 41,695 1 in 59,484 1 in 32,801

 

Why, I wonder, do male basketball players have such an abnormally high rate of SCD compared to other athletes? And why do female swimmers rate so high as well?

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  1. Mike says:

    Marfan Syndrome might explain some of the difference for Men’s basketball players.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marfan_syndrome

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  2. MRB says:

    I dunno, Marfan’s Syndrome?

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  3. Juan says:

    We would need the data from necropsies, if avalaible, to draw up a theory

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  4. Joe in Jersey says:

    Seems to me that the first thing I would do is break that data out by height, weight and race. Then I would check for patterns geographically (did you know that southerners have a pretty big sweet tooth, to the point that the most popular wines in Georgia are sweet wines, such as moscato) and versus family history. Without having access to this data I would guess that these athletes come from a family which has a history of cardiac issues, and score higher on tests (such as cholesterol levels) that indicate cardiac warning signs. It would also seem to me that basketball players are taller than other athletes (on average), don’t doctors say that this would make hearts work harder to circulate the blood. Are female swimmers taller than other female athletes on average? Are they taller than female basketball players on average?

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    • cackalacka says:

      Nah, female swimmers are not significantly larger than the general population in a way that women b-ball or even volleyball players are.

      Generally speaking, after gymnastics, there aren’t any college sports that put anywhere near the amount of aerobic stress on an athlete’s body than swimming (and conditioning for swimming, ) particularly middle-distance and distance swimmers.

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    • JEP says:

      It seems to me that very successful women swimmers have thinner hips and broader shoulders both of which are an advantage in swimming freestyle. Maybe this body type is predisposed to heart problems.

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  5. Aaron says:

    My first guess would be due to socioeconomic reasons. Male basketball players may have had a worse diet, less health care and more stress prior to becoming a college athlete.

    Diet could also potentially explain female swimmers as they may have more body image issues from competing in a skin tight swim suit.

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    • Emily says:

      It’s so obvious that this is confounded by race. Blacks and males have higher rates of SCD due to genetic reasons, and they also compose a higher proportion of the basketball playing population. Control for race and these differences would vanish.

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  6. Jazi says:

    What are the confidence intervals?

    Is there enough data to make the anomaly significant?
    (remember it being an ex post observation in four sports two genders.
    Anything below 1/500 p value is nothing here

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  7. Jim says:

    I wonder about the statistical significance of the differences. The abstract indicates that there were 45 cardiac related deaths in five years across all sports, or an average of only 9 per year. Most sport probably only had a few deaths during the entire study period. A difference of only one or two deaths may be enough to skew some of these numbers and that might be simply random variations.

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    • Joel Upchurch says:

      I agree with Jim. The numbers are simply too small to be statistically significant. I’d like to see a comparison to the general student population for sudden cardiac death. When you are talking about 9 deaths a year compared to 350,000 deaths per year nationwide, it is just a statistical fluke.

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  8. Adam W says:

    This also leads to another question: was drug use alone responsible for the death of Len Bias or were other factors responsible that seem to be more common among basketball players than the general population?

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