Causes of sudden death in competitive athletes

J Am Coll Cardiol. 1986 Jan;7(1):204-14. doi: 10.1016/s0735-1097(86)80283-2.


Cardiovascular diseases responsible for sudden unexpected death in highly conditioned athletes are largely related to the age of the patient. In most young competitive athletes (less than 35 years of age) sudden death is due to congenital cardiovascular disease. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy appears to be the most common cause of such deaths, accounting for about half of the sudden deaths in young athletes. Other cardiovascular abnormalities that appear to be less frequent but important causes of sudden death in young athletes include congenital coronary artery anomalies, ruptured aorta (due to cystic medial necrosis), idiopathic left ventricular hypertrophy and coronary artery atherosclerosis. Diseases that appear to be very uncommon causes of sudden death include myocarditis, mitral valve prolapse, aortic valve stenosis and sarcoidosis. Cardiovascular disease in young athletes is usually unsuspected during life, and most athletes who die suddenly have experienced no cardiac symptoms. In only about 25% of those competitive athletes who die suddenly is underlying cardiovascular disease detected or suspected before participation and rarely is the correct clinical diagnosis made. In contrast, in older athletes (greater than or equal to 35 years of age) sudden death is usually due to coronary artery disease, and rarely results from congenital heart disease.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aortic Rupture / complications
  • Aortic Rupture / pathology
  • Cardiomyopathy, Hypertrophic / complications
  • Cardiomyopathy, Hypertrophic / pathology
  • Cardiomyopathy, Hypertrophic / physiopathology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / complications
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / pathology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology
  • Competitive Behavior / physiology
  • Coronary Disease / complications
  • Coronary Disease / pathology
  • Coronary Disease / physiopathology
  • Coronary Vessel Anomalies / complications
  • Coronary Vessel Anomalies / pathology
  • Death, Sudden / etiology*
  • Death, Sudden / pathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myocardium / pathology
  • Sinus of Valsalva / abnormalities
  • Sports*