Sickle-cell trait as a risk factor for sudden death in physical training

N Engl J Med. 1987 Sep 24;317(13):781-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJM198709243171301.


Case reports of sudden death during exertion have not established an association between the sickle-cell trait (hemoglobin AS) and exercise-related death. To test this association, all deaths occurring among 2 million enlisted recruits during basic training in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1977 to 1981 were classified from autopsy and clinical records as non-sudden deaths or as sudden deaths explained or unexplained by preexisting disease. On the basis of known numbers of entering recruits (according to race, age, and sex) and published prevalence rates for hemoglobin AS (8 percent for black and 0.08 percent for nonblack recruits), death rates (per 100,000) were 32.2 for sudden unexplained deaths, 2.7 for sudden explained deaths, and 0 for non-sudden deaths among black recruits with hemoglobin AS, as compared with 1.2, 1.2, and 0.7 among black recruits without hemoglobin S and 0.7, 0.5, and 1.1 among nonblack recruits without hemoglobin S. Among black recruits the relative risk of sudden unexplained death (hemoglobin AS vs. non-hemoglobin S) was 27.6 (95 percent confidence interval, 9 to 100; P less than 0.001), whereas among all recruits this risk was 39.8 (95 percent confidence interval, 17 to 90; P less than 0.001). The relative risk of sudden unexplained death among all recruits increased with age (P less than 0.04), from 13 (ages 17 to 18) to 95 (ages 26 to 30). We conclude that recruits in basic training with the sickle-cell trait have a substantially increased, age-dependent risk of exercise-related sudden death unexplained by any known preexisting cause.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Anemia, Sickle Cell / mortality*
  • Black People
  • Death, Sudden*
  • Hemoglobin, Sickle / analysis
  • Humans
  • Military Personnel
  • Physical Education and Training*
  • Risk
  • Sickle Cell Trait / mortality*
  • United States


  • Hemoglobin, Sickle
  • hemoglobin AS