Background: For more than 20 years in Italy, young athletes have been screened before participating in competitive sports. We assessed whether this strategy results in the prevention of sudden death from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a common cardiovascular cause of death in young athletes.
Methods: We prospectively studied sudden deaths among athletes and nonathletes (35 years of age or less) in the Veneto region of Italy from 1979 to 1996. The causes of sudden death in both populations were compared, and the pathological findings in the athletes were related to their clinical histories and electrocardiograms. Cardiovascular reasons for disqualification from participation in sports were investigated and follow-up was performed in a consecutive series of 33,735 young athletes who underwent preparticipation screening in Padua during the same period.
Results: Of 269 sudden deaths in young people, 49 occurred in competitive athletes (44 male and 5 female athletes; mean age, 23+/-7 years). The most common causes of sudden death in athletes were arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (22.4 percent), coronary atherosclerosis (18.4 percent), and anomalous origin of a coronary artery (12.2 percent). Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy caused only 1 sudden death among the athletes (2.0 percent) but caused 16 sudden deaths in the nonathletes (7.3 percent). Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy was detected in 22 athletes (0.07 percent) at preparticipation screening and accounted for 3.5 percent of the cardiovascular reasons for disqualification. None of the disqualified athletes with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy died during a mean follow-up period of 8.2+/-5 years.
Conclusions: The results show that hypertrophic cardiomyopathy was an uncommon cause of death in these young competitive athletes and suggest that the identification and disqualification of affected athletes at screening before participation in competitive sports may have prevented sudden death.