Etiology of Sudden Cardiac Arrest and Death in US Competitive Athletes: A 2-Year Prospective Surveillance Study

Clin J Sport Med. 2020 Jul;30(4):305-314. doi: 10.1097/JSM.0000000000000598.


Objective: To determine the etiology of sudden cardiac arrest and death (SCA/D) in competitive athletes through a prospective national surveillance program.

Design: Sudden cardiac arrest and death cases in middle school, high school, college, and professional athletes were identified from July 2014 to June 2016 through traditional and social media searches, reporting to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, communication with state and national high school associations, review of the Parent Heart Watch database, and search of student-athlete deaths on the NCAA Resolutions List. Autopsy reports and medical records were reviewed by a multidisciplinary panel to determine the underlying cause.

Setting and participants: US competitive athletes with SCA/D.

Main outcome measures: Etiology of SCA/D.

Results: A total of 179 cases of SCA/D were identified (74 arrests with survival, 105 deaths): average age 16.6 years (range 11-29), 149 (83.2%) men, 94 (52.5%) whites, and 54 (30.2%) African American. One hundred seventeen (65.4%) had an adjudicated diagnosis, including 83 deaths and 34 survivors. The most common etiologies included hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (19, 16.2%), coronary artery anomalies (16, 13.7%), idiopathic left ventricular hypertrophy/possible cardiomyopathy (13, 11.1%), autopsy-negative sudden unexplained death (8, 6.8%), Wolff-Parkinson-White (8, 6.8%), and long QT syndrome (7, 6.0%). Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy was more common in male basketball (23.3%), football (25%), and African American athletes (30.3%). An estimated 56.4% of cases would likely demonstrate abnormalities on an electrocardiogram.

Conclusions: The etiology of SCA/D in competitive athletes involves a wide range of clinical disorders. More robust reporting mechanisms, standardized autopsy protocols, and accurate etiology data are needed to better inform prevention strategies.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Competitive Behavior*
  • Death, Sudden, Cardiac / epidemiology*
  • Death, Sudden, Cardiac / etiology*
  • Death, Sudden, Cardiac / prevention & control
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Population Surveillance*
  • Primary Prevention
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sports / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult