Carolinas HealthCare System
Heart of a Champion

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In the U.S., more than 10 million teenagers participate in athletics. Cardiac-related diseases have consistently been attributed as the leading cause of death while playing sports among American youth athletes, accounting for more than one-third of fatal cases in the United States. Youth athletes suffer sudden cardiac death (SCD) at a rate two to three times higher than their less-active peers, and at least 100 youth athletes per year die from SCD in the United States. Thousands of others are affected with undetected cardiac abnormalities and fortunately do not have SCD but suffer from other heart problems later in life when these abnormalities become apparent over time. The leading cause of SCD in young athletes is triggered by a hidden heart defect known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). HCM is a genetic abnormality present in approximately one in 500 people. This defect causes the left ventricle of the heart to enlarge, which can trigger fatal heart-rhythm disturbances, particularly during exercise.

HCM and most of the other causes of SCD are treatable if detected early by simple non-invasive heart tests. An electrocardiogram (ECG) can detect certain impulse patterns or “markers” associated with HCM and other heart conditions that cause SCD that a stethoscope cannot. An echocardiogram can further define the heart’s anatomy and help to clarify some of these abnormal markers found on ECG and identify problems not seen on ECG.

Most pre-participation sports screenings in the United States do not include these non-invasive heart tests due to high healthcare costs. The screenings also frequently lack the current recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA) to identify risk factors for SCD. However, internationally many of these tests are being implemented. The International Olympic Committee and the European Society of Cardiology recommended that athletes under the age of 35 be screened with an ECG before they participate in sports.

The Heart of a Champion Day aims to reduce these tragic statistics by providing free ECGs and echocardiograms with the most up to date AHA recommendations to screen for cardiac defects in high school student-athletes. By catching these abnormalities early, not only can we prevent SCD, but we can treat these patients and help them to lead normal lives in the future.

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