Hidden Heart Problems for College Athletes

Anthony Cherry suffers from a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy -- a form of heart disease characterized by a thickening of the heart muscles that can reduce the flow of blood to the heart.

Anthony Cherry was an 18-year-old high school senior when he received the news that he would be given a full football scholarship to North Carolina Central University.

Cherry, who had played football throughout high school, viewed a spot on the Eagles team in the fall of 2007 as the culmination of his hard work and passion for the game during the last four years.

But the summer before he was to embark on his freshman year, Cherry passed out unexpectedly during a workout session in his hometown of Baltimore.

"I didn't tell anybody about it because I thought it was because I hadn't eaten anything all day and thought I was just dehydrated," Cherry said. "I didn't think it was more serious than that."

However, when Cherry arrived at college in July, a routine physical revealed that the fainting spell was a warning sign for a life-threatening heart condition that Cherry never would have guessed he had.

The condition was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy -- a form of heart disease characterized by a thickening of the heart muscles that can reduce the flow of blood to the heart. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes.

Suddenly, Cherry's dreams of attending college and donning an Eagles football jersey were dashed. However, Cherry, now 19, said he understands how fortunate he is to have caught the condition before he began a college football career.

"I could have died," Cherry said. "But I feel fine now."

Many other college athletes may not be as lucky as Cherry was, according to a new study presented Saturday at the American College of Cardiology's Scientific Session in Orlando, Fla.

Researchers from St. Luke's Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., screened 781 male and female college athletes between the ages of 18 and 21 for heart abnormalities using an electrocardiogram, a test that measures electrical activity in the heart.

They found that about one-third of the college athletes showed signs of heart abnormalities. Moreover, researchers found signs of potential heart disease in about one in 10 of the athletes they screened.

Lead study investigator Dr. Anthony Magalski, medical director of the Athletic Heart Clinic at Saint Luke's, said that these findings are an important contribution in the debate over whether college athletes should be universally prescreened for underlying heart conditions before they can play sports.

"I think our study adds to the information out there about what can be done with incorporating an ECG [electrocardiogram] into preparticipation screening," Magalski said.

No Sure Answer for Heart Risks

However, Magalski also noted that reading the results from an ECG test is a complex and often subjective process, making it difficult to pinpoint life-threatening heart conditions with great accuracy.

"It's important to clarify if you use the ECG as a screening tool and ... if you have an abnormal ECG by standard criteria, that doesn't necessarily mean you have something wrong," Magalski said.

Moreover, Magalski said that not all doctors define an "abnormal" ECG the same way.

"Depending on how you define an abnormal ECG, our study showed that somewhere between 25 [percent] to 50 percent of athletes would have needed further testing on their heart," Magalski said.

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