Sudden Cardiac Death in athletes

Every now and again a story makes the headlines of a healthy athlete suddenly collapsing and dying. What could be the cause and how can one exercise and stay heart-healthy?

In March 2012, English Premier League player, Fabrice Muamba, just 23 years of age and the picture of health, collapsed suddenly on the pitch when his heart stopped beating. Then, in January 2013, two athletes, aged 29 and 37, died  of heart failure in the first leg of the Ironman triathlon in East London. None of these men had a history of heart problems.

If headlines like these make you want to pack away the running shoes and head for the couch, here’s what you need to know to keep your heart healthy.

The silent killer

The tragic death of the two Ironman athletes was caused by Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD); different from the more common heart attack caused by blockage in a coronary artery which then reduces or cuts off blood flow, oxygen and nutrients to the heart and damages the heart muscle.

In contrast, SCD occurs when electrical signals that control the heart's pumping ability, short-circuit. Suddenly, the heart may beat dangerously fast, causing the heart's ventricles to quiver or flutter instead of pumping blood in the usual co-ordinated way. This is known as arrhythmia. When the heart's pumping action is disrupted, blood flow to the body stops, resulting in sudden cardiac arrest.

A seemingly fit person collapses and loses consciousness, with no pulse or breathing, and without immediate CPR, or a shock from an automated defibrillator, they will die within minutes.

Causes of Sudden Cardiac Death 

In most cases, when a person is young, this lethal arrhythmia is caused by an underlying heart condition most commonly congenital or genetic, such as ion channelopathies which cause irregularities in the heart’s electrical impulses. This results in a heart beat that is too rapid (tachycardia), chaotic (ventricular fibrillation), irregular rhythms (arrhythmia), or too slow a beat (bradycardia); all can cause cardiac arrest and sudden death.

Another cause is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare genetic condition that leads to an enlarged heart that does not fill with blood in the usual way.

Non-cardiac conditions that may cause SCD are: pulmonary embolism, asthma, epilepsy, serious infections like meningitis and encephalitis, and intracranial hemorrhage. It is important to use heart medications correctly, since misuse of antiarrhythmics, antihypertensives, antihistamines, antidepressants and antibiotics, can lead to SCD.

Prolonged drug abuse has also been found to cause abnormal heart rhythms and sudden death.

It is important to note that rather than activity being the cause of SCD, it is the presence of a heart abnormality, coupled with the added strain on the body during bursts of extreme exertion, intense training programmes, or exercise in extreme heat, humidity or altitude, that increases the risk of Sudden Cardiac Death in a seemingly healthy individual.

In many cases there are no warning signs at all, while other affected children and young adults may suffer unexplained blackouts when they appear otherwise healthy, or experience muscle weakness and congenital deafness.

If there is a family history of SCD, relatives should undergo a scan or genetic test to detect an underlying treatable condition as early as possible. Usually children develop this condition after the age of 10, so they should be retested at a later stage even if they test negative before the age of nine or 10.

Routine ECGs for athletic pre-participation does help to prevent death during training or competition. The detection of cardiac abnormalities, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, dilated cardiomyopathy, or arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia offers the prospect of treatment, such as an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) that will improve symptoms and greatly reduce the risk of sudden death. A patient diagnosed with a condition would also be informed of exactly which medications to avoid.

Active is always healthier 

Although the sudden death of competitive athletes does occur, and almost certainly makes headlines, the number of deaths resulting from SCD is still relatively low. Estimates range from one in 50 000 to one in 300 000 over a 10-year period. Roughly 2 000 young South Africans, unaware of an existing heart condition, die each year as a result of SCD.

The vast majority of heart conditions however, continue to be caused by lifestyle choices says Vash Mungal, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa. “Too many hours spent on the couch, munching on unhealthy snacks tend to lead to lifestyle diseases like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer and obesity,” she cautions. “There is still no substitute for good lifestyle choices as a way to ward of heart conditions.”

Heart and Stroke Foundation dietician, Erika Ketterer, says, “Compared to those who exercise regularly, inactive people double their risk of suffering a heart attack and dying immediately after such an attack. A sedentary lifestyle is also linked to depression, anxiety, osteoporosis, stress and ageing less healthily. Following a healthy lifestyle and being physically active is crucial in the fight against cardio vascular disease.”

The Heart and Stroke Foundation advocates that people engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, like brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or dancing, on most days to reap the many benefits of being a physically active individual.

“Most healthy people of any age,” Ketterer says, “can safely engage in moderate levels of physical activity, like moderate walking and gardening, without consulting a doctor. People who have been sedentary, are overweight, middle-aged or older, or have a medical condition, should consult their doctor if they have any concerns and should seek medical advice before they start or significantly increase their physical activity.”

For more information you can contact the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA on 021 447 6268 or visit

Read more:

Pot belly boosts sudden cardiac death risk
Lifestyle may affect sudden cardiac death risk
Top 10 heart-smart foods

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
28% - 9936 votes
72% - 25943 votes