The number one killer of young athletes is not concussion- or head injury-related, a group of youth sports safety advocates announced at a recent conference in Washington, DC. Instead, sudden cardiac arrest, typically brought on by a pre-existing, detectable condition that could have been treated, is the culprit in most sports-related deaths. Another lethal threat is heat stroke, which is considered to be completely preventable. The New York Times reports on the findings, and how safety advocates are trying to raise awareness of these risks:
Concussions are receiving attention nationwide, but death from a blow to the head is exceedingly rare. In contrast, a young athlete dies from a cardiac incident once every three days in the United States, researchers say. In hot months like August, heat stroke often causes the death of a young athlete every other day on average.
"Concussion victims almost always get a second chance," said Laura Friend, an attendee at the Washington summit whose 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, died of sudden cardiac arrest while swimming at a Texas community pool in 2004. "When your heart fails from something that could have been treated — which happens all the time — you don't have another chance. As someone told me, sudden cardiac arrest is not rare; surviving it is."
Heat stroke, also known as exertional heat illness, has been a focus of sports safety advocates because of simple, common-sense preventive measures, like introducing gradual levels of exercise at the beginning of a sports season in hot temperatures.
"When my son died, people treated it as a freak thing," said Rhonda Fincher, whose 13-year-old son, Kendrick, died in 1995 from heat stroke sustained during a season-opening football practice in northwestern Arkansas. "The ignorance was unacceptable because, unfortunately, it is not infrequent. And we should all know that.
"No healthy child should be sent off to a routine practice and die from it."
Leaders of youth sports acknowledge that concussions have long been overlooked and that the injury deserves a period of heightened awareness, especially because of the potential for long-term consequences. But as the focus of the February conference organized by the National Athletic Trainers' Association suggests, there is a mounting worry that more hazardous health concerns are being disregarded because of the intense emphasis on brain injuries.
A sudden heart-related death is "so incredibly tragic and stunning that people aren't comfortable putting it into the everyday conversation," said Dr. Jonathan Drezner, the president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.
"I do wish, to some extent, it was something people talked more about," Drezner added, "because we are getting to a place where we could prevent many of these deaths."
Image: Girl with soccer ball, via Shutterstock