Although tragic stories of young athletes dying from sudden cardiac death (SCD) during sporting events are very rare, the devastation of such events often misguidedly raises concerns around the safety of participating in sports, according to Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute researcher Dr. Saul Isserow.
“We want to get everyone away from the assumption that participating in sports is dangerous. It is not,” says Dr. Isserow, director of Vancouver General Hospital’s Centre for Cardiovascular Health and director of cardiology services at UBC Hospital. “Sport itself does not lead to cardiac arrest, but can trigger a sudden death by aggravating an undetected heart abnormality.”
Dr. Isserow is founder and medical director of Sports Cardiology B.C., a non-profit organization dedicated to making sports safer for athletes through research and education about risk of cardiac arrest or SCD due to cardiac abnormalities. Their research will also help determine whether or not they should advocate for mandatory screening of athletes.
The organization’s current study, led by Dr. Isserow, involves screening more than 2,000 competitive athletes in B.C. under the age of 35 for pre-existing factors that put them at greater risk of SCD.
“While Italy and the U.S. have this data for their athlete populations, B.C.’s multicultural and multi-ethnic population makeup make it necessary for us to collect our own genetic data,” explains Dr. Isserow.
Sports Cardiology B.C. has two other similar studies under way. The first is a five-year study of Burnaby firefighters to determine their cardiovascular risk factors, develop screening processes, and help mitigate risks with appropriate training, coaching, and education. Their second study is of “master” athletes in B.C. who are over the age of 35 and participate in high-level recreation activities such as the Grouse Grind and Grand Fondo. Researchers are trying to find the best way to screen these athletes and help them manage any heart health risks.
First Canadian study investigating heart defects leading to SCD
Because athletes are pushing their bodies past normal endurance limits, screening and assessment are very important,” says Dr. Isserow. “We’re trying to find the most cost-effective way to do this screening to determine whether or not it should be mandatory for all athletes.” To date, the study has screened approximately 300 athletes and has already identified one individual who plays exceedingly high-level rugby with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that places him at high risk for SCD.
Uncovering this condition not only allows for the physicians, coaches, and family to manage or possibly treat the disease, but it also allows for understanding risks and setting safe upper limits to physical exertion when playing the sport.
The conditions Dr. Isserow and his research team are looking to screen for are as likely to cause sudden death while the athlete is sleeping, as they are during physical activity.
“We’re trying to find that rare individual who is pre-disposed to a potential life-threatening event at a young age,” he adds. “Sports and physical activity are incredibly beneficial socially, psychologically, physically, and for our overall health. Our work is trying to make sporting endeavors safer.”