Young Athletes’ Cardiac Issues Highlight Widespread Severity of Heart Disease
Bronny James, the eldest son of famed NBA star LeBron James, has been the focal point of sports headlines after suffering a cardiac arrest during a routine basketball practice at the University of Southern California (USC). But the rising sports star isn’t the only unsuspecting youth battling heart issues, as public figures and local health organizations alike are shining light on the dangers of heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases (CVD) that are putting lives at risk irrespective of age.
Recently, MedStar Washington Hospital Center hosted an event educating district residents on the dire importance of knowing how to administer CPR to an individual suffering a heart attack, or cardiovascular medical emergency.
Jude Mabone, winner of Miss DC 2023, and a six-time heart attack survivor, has braved through the tumultuous journey of heart disease, having experienced her first attack at only 16 years old.
American Heart Association’s 2023 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update Fact Sheet, heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, as approximately every 40 seconds someone in the United States will have a myocardial infarction (heart attack).
Alarmingly, from 2017 to 2020, 59% of non-Hispanic Black women, and roughly 58.9% of non-Hispanic Black men were diagnosed with some form of CVD. These numbers indicate Black people have the highest prevalence of CVD across the United States.
While cardiac arrest and heart attacks (a nonspecific term) share similar physical responses, there is often a common confusion between the two. A heart attack happens when one of the coronary arteries becomes blocked, abruptly cutting a part of the heart off from its blood supply. On the other hand, a primary cardiac arrest, which both Bronny James and the Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin experienced while actively playing sports, is when the heart’s electrical system suddenly short circuits, making the heart quiver in an uncoordinated fashion, and suddenly stopping its ability to pump blood.
Where there seems to be an increasing prevalence of heart disease in young athletes, Dr. Susan O’Donoghue, a cardiac electrophysiologist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, explained that heart issues have always been a significant concern of young athletes, however, today’s media is bringing more attention to the issue.
“There actually has not been an increase, I think there is more attention, which is a good thing. For athletes, if they have a cardiac arrest, there is a higher survival rate because of the widespread availability of the automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) that the trainers generally have available now,” O’Donoghue explained. “And so, if an athlete has a cardiac arrest in a situation where there is no AED available, the survival rate is in the 10 percent range, whereas when there is an AED and trained personnel, the survival rate is closer to 90%.”
With the help of AEDs, O’Donoghue explained, more athletes are surviving cardiac challenges, allowing for more medical research and raising awareness among athletic communities.
“In a sense, there is more attention paid to it because some of these athletes are surviving, and then they are in the hospital and being investigated which leads to an increased awareness of this,” O’Donoghue said.
Addressing Heart Disease Before It Addresses You
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 2,000, “young, seemingly healthy people under 25 in the United States die each year of sudden cardiac arrest.”
When preparing children for youth sporting leagues, O’Donoghue said children and parents would greatly benefit from pushing pre-testing of young people to identify those who might be susceptible to heart issues before they participate in sports.
Upon Mabone’s diagnosis, doctors were not able to provide a specific origin to her case, as she manages a condition that typically affects geriatric patients while not having any genetic disposition of heart issues. Although it is a fairly common issue, it is not so prevalent in teenagers, or young adults in their 20s.
Mabone’s case highlights the severe gap in heart disease research, as Dr. Barbara Srichai-Parsia, director of the Women’s Heart Program at MedStar Health, weighs in on the unique factors female persons face when battling heart disease.
“Women are having heart attacks it seems not quite as frequently as men, but there is actually an increased mortality in women once we’ve had a heart attack, compared to men, which is very provocative because it’s saying that once you’ve had a heart attack as a female person, your risk of dying or having heart problems is higher than if you’re a man having a heart attack,” said Srichai-Parsia.
“There are differences in how men and women present, and that’s always been thought to be one of the reasons that women do not get recognized early enough. Doctors, or even patients themselves don’t [always] recognize the symptoms they are having as being from a heart attack. Women often have other symptoms that go along with it that can lead you down a different pathway, like breathing issues, or stomach issues that they may attribute to something else.”
Both O’Donoghue and Srichai-Parsia emphasize the critical importance of heart health screenings while paying close attention to symptoms, which typically display themselves as: fainting during exercise, chest pain, abnormal shortness of breath, dizziness during exercise, and abnormal heart racing. All symptoms are major red flags that should encourage one to immediately seek advice from a cardiovascular physician.
Despite her condition, Mabone went on to run four years of division one track and cross country after taking a year off of athletic pursuits succeeding in her first heart attack.
Today, Mabone still runs and continues to exercise to maintain her health. She stays conscious of extreme weather conditions of overt hot or cold but has sustained a healthy routine, having survived nearly ten years of no heart issues since her last heart attack at 18 years old.
“For the most part I have a normal resistance, I’m just a little more cognizant of my stress levels and a little bit more aware of how I’m feeling than I think most people are because I’ve had those experiences, and I know what those symptoms and signs can be,” Mabone said.