Study: Young black athletes die of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy more than other subgroups

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Although heart diseases can affect anyone, a new study shows evidence that a certain string of heart failures occur more often in minority athletes than their atheltic counerparts of different races and genders.

The study, which involved more than 30 years of research by scientists at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, will be published in the October issue of The American Journal of Medicine.

To gather data on athletes who died suddenly, the researchers studied the U.S. National Registry of Sudden Death in Athletes, which documented more than 2,400 deaths in athletes between the ages of 13 and 25, who died sometime between 1980 and 2011. The data showed that more than one-third of reported cardiovascular deaths were caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and that more than 50 percent of them occurred in young, male black athletes.

Barry Maron, lead author on the study and an adjunct professor at Tufts, said that although hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a genetic disease, it’s not something that is naturally more prevalent in black people, adding that environmental factors and cardiovascular screening limitations play a role.

“We’ve identified the fact that minorities, mostly African-American athletes, incur sudden death to cardiovascular diseases at a fairly high rate among other demographic subgroups that have the same outcome,” said Maron in an interview with Cardiovascular Business. “It raises the question of whether the screening we do in the United States is equitable and fair in all communities. There is no data on whether screening is as prevalent in African-Americans in their communities.”

Francis Alenghat, a practicing cardiologist and assistant professor at the University of Chicago, said one reason blacks are disproportionately affected by the heart disease is because they don’t have access to same standard of healthcare as other races, noting that other diseases besides cardiovascular ones also disproportionately affect black people.

“There’s probably an issue with disparities in healthcare and access to healthcare,” Alenghat said in an interview with Cardiovascular Business. “Certain populations get less visits to a physician and less routine medical care than others and maybe that’s why some of these diagnoses are not being noticed prior to the patient participating in sports.”

Alenghat said changing the way the U.S. screens patients for cardiac diseases could help decrease deaths caused by them, considering that tests like an electrocardiogram (EKG) are not mandatory and are left up to the discretion of each physician.

“There’s been a lot of controversy about the extent to which we should screen patients who wish to participate in athletics,” Alenghat said. “Most consensus recommendations involve screening with the history, physical exam and making sure there’s no overt family history or symptoms, but not necessarily getting other cardiac testing on patients routinely.”

Symptoms associated with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy include undue shortness of breath, chest pain and feeling light headed or dizzy. If patients feel these symptoms during athletic activities, they should see their doctor right away, Alenghat said.

“If someone showed up to me with any of those symptoms, even if the physical exam was normal, I would get an EKG at the very least and maybe do further testing, depending on the findings of the EKG,” he said.