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Lowering the risk of sudden cardiac death in young athletes

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The tragic death of a young athlete Wednesday at Raymore-Peculiar High School may have you wondering what you can do to lower your young athlete's risk of sudden cardiac death. Dr. Anthony Magalski, who heads the Athletic Heart Clinic at Saint Luke's Hospital, says it's first important to know that the risk is fairly low to begin with. It happens in roughly one in 50,000 athletes each year.

Basketball players are at higher risk. So are African Americans. The most common cause is an abnormal thickening of the heart. But there are other abnormalities that can also cause the heart to go into an irregular rhythm that the athlete can't come out of.

The Athletic Heart Clinic offers a screening to find those abnormalities. It includes an EKG to measure electrical activity and an echocardiogram to look at the heart valves, size and movement.

"Less than one percent have a serious cardiac finding. The majority of the time we find it, we can treat it and they can go back to participation," said Dr. Magalski.

But the American Heart Association does not recommend this type of screening for all young athletes because of the low risk of sudden cardiac death, the cost of screening, the chances of false positive or negative results and the lack of professionals who can accurately interpret the tests.

"It has to be done right. You have to know how to read an electrocardiogram in a young athlete," said the cardiologist.

The AHA instead favors initial screening by your doctor that includes questions about your personal and family heart history along with a careful physical exam. The AHA says unfortunately, most doctors don't do that when performing physicals on high school athletes.

Dr. Magalski says even with good screening, sudden cardiac deaths can still happen.

"If the athlete has an infection, that can precipitate a normal heart to become abnormal. High dose caffeine and energy drinks, other stimulants can precipitate an arrhythmia," he warned.

He says athletes should stay away from those.

Dr. Magalski says do not delay getting your young athlete checked if he or she has symptoms during or after exercise. Symptoms include chest pain, fainting, unusual shortness of breath or a racing or irregular heart beat..