Fri, Aug 10, 2018 - Page 16 News List

More young soccer players are dying of heart problems than thought: study

The Guardian

Young soccer players are dying from heart problems at a higher rate than was previously thought, according to doctors who oversee the cardiac screening program for the Football Association (FA).

Their evaluation of 20 years of screening 16-year-old soccer players who are on the verge of a professional career also found that most died about seven years after a heart check that showed no problem.

In the light of the findings, the FA has increased the number of cardiac assessments that young soccer players are given from one to three, at the ages of 16, 18 and 20.

There have been a number of shocking deaths among young soccer stars, including that of 28-year-old Cameroon international Marc-Vivien Foe, who played in the Premier League.

The midfielder collapsed while playing for Cameroon against Colombia during the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup in France. An autopsy found he had a hereditary heart condition.

In 2012, then-23-year-old Bolton Wanderers star Fabrice Muamba had a cardiac arrest on the pitch during an FA Cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur and nearly died.

The occasional tragedies among soccer players led the FA to set up the screening program in 1997. The tests are part of a fitness assessment that is mandatory for all academy soccer players aged 16 or 17 before they sign a professional contract.

The program now has 20 years of comprehensive data.

The review of the data was led by Sanjay Sharma, professor of inherited diseases and sports cardiology at St George’s, University of London and chair of the FA’s expert cardiac committee.

He and his team, who have published their results in the New England Journal of Medicine, found a death rate of one in 14,700 people — considerably higher than the previous estimates of one in 50,000 or one in 200,000, Sharma said.

“That was threefold greater than any study has ever reported in the past and that did surprise us,” Sharma said. “What surprised us the most was that of the eight deaths that did occur, six had completely normal screens at the age of 16. That was worrying.”

“What it told us firstly was that death rates were higher than had been anticipated and secondly that a one-off screening at the age of 16, which was what the FA were doing, is not enough and that we would probably have to do serial assessments if we are going to identify some of these guys, because they died around seven years after they had been screened,” he said.

“The death of a young athlete is highly tragic when one considers that most deaths are due to congenital electrical or structural diseases of the heart that are detectable during life,” he added.

From 1997 to 2016, more than 11,000 players filled in a health questionnaire and were given a physical examination, 12-lead electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram.

Of these players, 42 (0.38 percent) had cardiac diseases that could cause sudden cardiac death. Hardly any had symptoms of any sort.

Most — 30 of the 42 — had surgery or other treatment for their heart defect and were able to go back to playing soccer, but the other 12 stopped playing.

“Some people were disqualified from the sport, so their dreams were taken away from them. You could argue that those people may never have died if they carried on. That could be true, but we don’t know that,” Sharma said.

Sharma is in favor of screening for other athletes as well. Sudden heart-related deaths in young people occur in other sports.

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