Athletes and Heart Disease 

As many athletes lead a healthy lifestyle, there is often an assumption that athletes and physically active people are not at risk for heart disease.  However, athletes can be impacted by heart disease or suffer from heart-related health conditions at any point in their life.

While athletes are generally considered healthy, they are not completely “safe” from developing heart disease, having a heart attack or even dying from a heart condition. 

Heart Conditions That Can Impact Athletes 

There are several heart-related health problems that an athlete or active person could be affected by. Some of the more common health conditions potentially impacting athletes include: 

  • Congenital heart disease — Also known as congenital heart defects, these involve abnormalities in the heart structure that are present at birth. Roughly one-quarter of the population has a “hole” in their heart, which might not cause any symptoms at all, or could lead to serious health complications later in life.  
  • Inherited heart conditions — Coronary artery disease, which can run in families, may lead to a heart attack, stroke or heart failure. Certain cardiac disorders, including arrhythmia and high cholesterol, can be inherited. 
  • Arrhythmia — Arrhythmia refers to an abnormal beating of the heart, whether it beats too fast, too slow or irregularly. Arrhythmia could potentially lead to other heart problems and impact people of all ages, including newborns, young people, adults in middle age and the elderly. 
  • Hypertension — Hypertension is considered the most common cardiovascular disease among athletes and people who are physically active. Hypertension typically begins in early adulthood and becomes more prevalent with age. 

These are just some the heart conditions that athletes could develop or be impacted by. While a healthy diet and physical activity can reduce one’s risk of heart disease, an athlete could still be at risk due to age, family history or other factors. 

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) in Athletes 

Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) occurs when electrical problems in the heart cause an extremely rapid heart rate, which interrupts blood flow and prevents the heart from pumping blood to vital organs. If not treated right away, SCA can lead to sudden cardiac death (SCD) in a matter of minutes. 

Among young athletes, sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death. Young athletes, including high school and college students, are more than twice as likely to experience SCD than young non-athletes. 

Key facts about sudden cardiac death (SCD) in young athletes: 

  • The average age for SCD in young athletes is 17.5 years old
  • Ninety percent of SCD victims are male
  • More than two-thirds of young athletes who die suddenly are basketball or football players 

While SCA can occur without warning, signs can include fainting during physical activity, a family history of SCD, shortness of breath, or chest pain. 

Specialized Treatment for Athletes with Heart Disease 

Dr. Vijay Subbarao, cardiologist at Denver Heart and Rose Medical Center, specializes in treating athletes and high-level physical activity patients with heart disease. As a provider for the Colorado Rapids MLS team, Denver Heart is a leader in treating athletes with heart conditions or heart-related health problems. 

For athletes, heart-health screenings, prevention and regular checkups are imperative for keeping the heart healthy and diagnosing heart disease as soon as possible. Cardiologists at Denver Heart strong encourage athletes at risk for a heart condition to consult with a cardiac specialist, who could save your life or help stop heart disease before it starts.