Keeping young hearts safe
Eighty-two percent of heart-related deaths have occurred with physical exertion during competition or training, according to the American Heart Association.
In the midst of school sports, young athletes are taking the football field. Although public focus remains on concussions as the sports issue of most concern, a New York Times article recently revealed that sudden cardiac arrest is the number one killer of young athletes.
One Chicago cardiologist, Dr. Joseph Marek, concerned that little was being done to prevent heart attacks among young athletes, began Young Hearts for Life, a program that provides electrocardiogram or EKG/ECGs screenings to students in area high schools. These tests are believed to be the key to early detection and treatment.
Dr. Marek, a physician at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. with Advocate Medical Group, now works with other Advocate Health Care physicians and health care professionals to detect heart irregularities in active high-school-age students before a tragic episode occurs.
More than 7,000 people under age 18 die from undetected heart conditions each year. In the general population, sudden cardiac death accounts for 300,000 to 400,000 deaths annually in the United States, according to the American Heart Association.
“It’s unimaginable to see a young athlete who’s been conditioning and training to die suddenly of sudden cardiac arrest,” Dr. Marek says. “Knowing these kinds of statistics, I couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore. I had to act.”
Dr. Marek knew to make an impact; many students would need to get screened. He and his team, therefore, devised a system that has enabled them to perform nearly 100,000 EKG screenings in less than eight years.
The program was started to protect athletes. As their adrenaline increases during games, so does the stress on their heart. The combination of stress and exertion can cause heart problems to surface, but help often comes too late.
The physical examination that virtually every athlete across the country must pass to play a school sport includes listening to the heartbeat, checking blood pressure and reviewing family medical history. Additional testing is typically not done unless a red flag is raised.
Dr. Frank Zimmerman, director of pediatric electrophysiology at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., says it is unfortunate that the standard high school sports physical examination does not include tests to detect heart conditions that could lead to sudden death.
In some European countries, most notably Italy, young athletes are required to have EKGs to play sports, but not in the United States. Many doctors strongly advocate adding an EKG, to the pre-participation exam. They say it would detect about two-thirds of the deadly, concealed heart problems aggravated by exercise in competition.
For more information about Young Hearts for Life, call 630.785.4366.
About the Author
health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.
High School is much too late. To be what these folks want the program to be, it needs to be done in early elementary school.