Sudden cardiac death in athletes


  • C. Schmied,

    1. Cardiovascular Center, Clinic for Cardiology, University Hospital Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
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  • M. Borjesson

    Corresponding author
    1. Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences and Department of Cardiology, Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden
    • Correspondence: Mats Borjesson, Swedish School of Sports and Health Sciences, Lidingövägen 1, 114 86 Stockholm, Sweden. (e-mail:

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A ‘paradox of sport’ is that in addition to the undisputed health benefits of physical activity, vigorous exertion may transiently increase the risk of acute cardiac events. In general, the risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD) approximately doubles during physical activity and is 2- to 3-fold higher in athletes compared to nonathletes. The incidence of SCD in young athletes is in fact very low, at around 1–3 per 100 000, but attracts much public attention. Variations in incidence figures may be explained by the methodology used for data collection and more importantly by differences between subpopulations of athletes. The incidence of SCD in older (≥35 years) athletes is higher and may be expected to rise, as more and older individuals take part in organized sports. SCD is often the first clinical manifestation of a potentially fatal underlying cardiovascular disorder and usually occurs in previously asymptomatic athletes. In the young (<35 years), SCD is mainly due to congenital/inherited cardiac abnormalities, whilst coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common cause in older athletes. Cardiac screening including family/personal history, physical examination and resting electrocardiogram (ECG) may identify individuals at risk and has the potential to decrease the risk of SCD in young athletes. Screening including the ECG has a high sensitivity for underlying disease in young athletes, but the specificity needs to be improved, whereas the sensitivity of screening without the use of ECG is very low. The screening modality recommended for young athletes is of limited value in older athletes, who should receive individualized screening with cardiac stress testing for patients with high risk of underlying CAD. As cardiovascular screening will never be able to identify all athletes at risk, adequate preparedness is vital in case of a potentially fatal event at the sporting arena/facility. Firstly, we will review the magnitude of the problem of SCD in athletes of different ages, as well as the aetiology. Secondly, we will focus on how to prevent SCD in athletes of all ages, reviewing cardiovascular screening recommendations as well as emergency preparedness and arena safety.