Sudden Cardiac Deaths Down Among NCAA Athletes


A new study shows sudden cardiac deaths among collegiate athletes decreased over a recent 20-year period, but risks are still elevated among males, Black players, and basketball players, suggesting more intensive screening among these groups is needed.


  • The study examined incidence and surrounding circumstances of sudden cardiac death (SCD) among student athletes who competed in at least one varsity sport at National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I, II, or III institutions in the 20 years from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2022.

  • Researchers determined causes of death and gathered demographic characteristics using multiple methods, including review of autopsy and other official documents, Internet searches, and contacts to next of kin, coaches, athletic trainers, coroners, medical examiners, scholarship foundations, and physicians involved in the case.

  • SCD was defined as sudden unexpected death attributable to a cardiac cause, or a sudden death in a structurally normal heart with no other explanation for death and a history consistent with cardiac-related death that occurred within an hour of symptom onset, or an unwitnessed death occurring within 24 hours of the person being alive.

  • Researchers calculated incidence rates over a typical 4-year collegiate career and reported these as athlete-years.


  • The incidence of SCD, which accounted for 13% of the 1102 total deaths during the study period, decreased over time, with a 5-year incidence rate ratio (IRR) of 0.71 (95% CI, 0.61 – 0.82), while noncardiovascular deaths remained stable.

  • IRR for males versus females was 3.79 (95% CI, 2.45 – 5.88) and for Black versus White athletes was 2.79 (95% CI, 1.98 – 3.94).

  • Basketball and football players were at increased risk of SCD; for example, the incidence rate among Division I Black male basketball athletes was 1:1924 per 4-year athlete-years.

  • The most common postmortem finding was autopsy-negative sudden unexplained death, at 19%, followed by idiopathic left ventricular hypertrophy/possible cardiomyopathy (17%) and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (13%), with no cases of death attributable to COVID-19 myocarditis.


Although the reason for the decrease in SCD is unknown, “our data suggest that strategies to reduce SCD among competing athletes may be having a positive effect,” write the authors. More intensive screening strategies among groups with high SCD incidence may be warranted, they add.


The study was conducted by Bradley J. Petek, MD, Sports Cardiology Program, Knight Cardiovascular Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland. It was published online November 13 in Circulation and presented at the American Heart Association (AHA) Scientific Sessions 2023 (abstract 479).


Some cases of SCD may have been missed as there is no mandatory reporting system in the United States. Approaches to cardiac autopsy and reporting varied significantly. The cause of death was unknown in 16 cases, and postmortem genetic testing was available for only 3% of athletes. As the study didn’t have data on resuscitated sudden cardiac arrest or preparticipation cardiovascular screening practices and findings, definitive conclusions couldn’t be drawn regarding causal factors underlying the decreased incidence of SCD.


There was no outside funding source. Petek has reported no relevant financial relationships. Disclosures for the other authors are listed with the article.

Source: Read Full Article