Sudden Cardiac Death in National Collegiate Athletic Association Athletes: A 20-Year Study

Circulation. 2024 Jan 9;149(2):80-90. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.123.065908. Epub 2023 Nov 13.


Background: Understanding the incidence, causes, and trends of sudden cardiac death (SCD) among young competitive athletes is critical to inform preventive policies.

Methods: This study included National Collegiate Athletic Association athlete deaths during a 20-year time frame (July 1, 2002, through June 30, 2022). Athlete deaths were identified through 4 separate independent databases and search strategies (National Collegiate Athletic Association resolutions list, Parent Heart Watch database and media reports, National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research database, and insurance claims). Autopsy reports and medical history were reviewed by an expert panel to adjudicate causes of SCD.

Results: A total of 143 SCD cases in National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes were identified from 1102 total deaths. The National Collegiate Athletic Association resolutions list identified 117 of 143 (82%), the Parent Heart Watch database or media reports identified 89 of 143 (62%), the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research database identified 63 of 143 (44%), and insurance claims identified 27 of 143 (19%) SCD cases. The overall incidence of SCD was 1:63 682 athlete-years (95% CI, 1:54 065-1:75 010). Incidence was higher in male athletes than in female athletes (1:43 348 [95% CI, 1:36 228-1:51 867] versus 1:164 504 [95% CI, 1:110 552-1:244 787] athlete-years, respectively) and Black athletes compared with White athletes (1:26 704 [1:20 417-1:34 925] versus 1:74 581 [1:60 247-1:92 326] athlete-years, respectively). The highest incidence of SCD was among Division I male basketball players (1:8188 [White, 1:5848; Black, 1:7696 athlete-years]). The incidence rate for SCD decreased over the study period (5-year incidence rate ratio, 0.71 [95% CI, 0.61-0.82]), whereas the rate of noncardiovascular deaths remained stable (5-year incidence rate ratio, 0.98 [95% CI, 0.94-1.04]). Autopsy-negative sudden unexplained death (19.5%) was the most common postmortem examination finding, followed by idiopathic left ventricular hypertrophy or possible cardiomyopathy (16.9%) and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (12.7%), in cases with enough information for adjudication (118 of 143). Eight cases of death were attributable to myocarditis over the study period (1 case from January 1, 2020, through June 30, 2022), with none attributed to COVID-19 infection. SCD events were exertional in 50% of cases. Exertional SCD was more common among those with coronary artery anomalies (100%) and arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy (83%).

Conclusions: The incidence of SCD in college athletes has decreased. Male sex, Black race, and basketball are associated with a higher incidence of SCD.

Keywords: athletes; death, sudden, cardiac; exercise; sports.

MeSH terms

  • Athletes
  • Athletic Injuries* / complications
  • Cardiomyopathies* / complications
  • Death, Sudden, Cardiac / prevention & control
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Sports*