Background: The true incidence of sudden cardiac death (SCD) in US athletes is unknown. Current estimates are based largely on case identification through public media reports and estimated participation rates. The purpose of this study was to more precisely estimate the incidence of SCD in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) student-athletes and assess the accuracy of traditional methods for collecting data on SCD.
Methods and results: From January 2004 through December 2008, all cases of sudden death in NCAA student-athletes were identified by use of an NCAA database, weekly systematic search of public media reports, and catastrophic insurance claims. During the 5-year period, there were 273 deaths and a total of 1 969 663 athlete participant-years. Of these 273 deaths, 187 (68%) were due to nonmedical or traumatic causes, 80 (29%) to medical causes, and 6 (2%) to unknown causes. Cardiovascular-related sudden death was the leading cause of death in 45 (56%) of 80 medical cases, and represented 75% of sudden deaths during exertion. The incidence of SCD was 1:43 770 participants per year. Among NCAA Division I male basketball players, the rate of SCD was 1:3100 per year. Thirty-nine (87%) of the 45 cardiac cases were identified in the NCAA database, only 25 (56%) by use of public media reports, and 9 (20%) from catastrophic claims data.
Conclusions: SCD is the leading medical cause of death and death during exercise in NCAA student-athletes. Current methods of data collection underestimate the risk of SCD. Accurate assessment of SCD incidence is necessary to shape appropriate health policy decisions and develop effective strategies for prevention.