Aetiology and incidence of sudden cardiac arrest and death in young competitive athletes in the USA: A 4-year prospective study

Danielle F. Peterson, Kristen Kucera, Leah Cox Thomas, Joseph Maleszewski, David Siebert, Martha Lopez-Anderson, Monica Zigman, Jared Schattenkerk, Kimberly G. Harmon, Jonathan A. Drezner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Objective To investigate the aetiology and incidence of sudden cardiac arrest and death (SCA/D) in US competitive athletes. Methods Prospective surveillance was conducted from 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2018 through the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in collaboration with national sports organisations. Autopsy reports, death certificates, and medical records were reviewed by an expert panel to determine aetiology. Athlete participation statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) were used to calculate incidence rates per athlete-years (AY). Comparisons of incidence rates were calculated using incidence rate ratios (IRR) with 95% CIs. Results 331 cases of confirmed SCA/D (158 survivors; 173 fatalities) were identified; 15.4% in middle school, 61.6% in high school and 16.6% in college and professional athletes. Average age was 16.7 (11-29) years, and the majority were in male (83.7%), basketball (28.7%) or American football (25.4%) athletes. Common causes included hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (20.6%), idiopathic left ventricular hypertrophy (13.4%), coronary artery anomalies (12.0%) and autopsy-negative sudden unexplained death (9.6%). Coronary anomalies were more common in middle school athletes (28%), while cardiomyopathies (hypertrophic, arrhythmogenic, dilated, non-compaction or restricted) accounted for 47% of cases in college and professional athletes. Incidence was higher in male versus female athletes at the high school (1:43 932 AY (95% CI 1:38 101 to 1:50 907) vs 1:203 786 AY (95% CI 1:145 251 to 1:293 794); IRR 4.6 (95% CI 3.1 to 7.2)) and NCAA (1:34 906 AY (95% CI 1:25 385 to 1:49 173) vs 1:123 278 AY (95% CI 1:66 078 to 1:249 853); IRR 3.5 (95% CI 1.5 to 9.5)) levels. African American male NCAA Division I basketball players had the highest annual incidence rate of SCA/D (1:2087 AY (95% CI 1:1073 to 1:4 450)). Conclusions Cardiomyopathies account for nearly half of SCA/D cases in college and professional athletes, while coronary artery anomalies play a more prominent role than expected in middle school athletes. Over half of SCA cases in athletes result in sudden death, calling for improved prevention strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1196-1203
Number of pages8
JournalBritish journal of sports medicine
Issue number21
StatePublished - Nov 1 2021


  • cardiology
  • cardiovascular
  • death
  • prevention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine


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