July Olympic Resource Post: A tribute to athletes battling heart disease

August 13, 2008 by  

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Many of us look to up to successful sports people and we can’t really imagine that some of them may also be fighting against heart disease like the rest of us. After all, physical exercise is supposedly the key to cardiovascular health.

Yet, there have been sudden deaths in past sports competition. According to Dr. Barry J. Maron of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, “about 125 athletes under 35 involved in organized sports die of sudden death in the United States each year…” The institute keeps a national registry of such fatalities and the majority of cases recorded were due to cardiac-related events.

Although researchers are scrambling to find the best preparticipation screening, it’s always a difficult decision between safeguarding an athlete’s life and killing his/her Olympic dream.

In this resource post, I would like to pay tribute to athletes who have succumbed to heart disease in their quest to be the best.

The fatalities

Reggie Lewis played for the Boston Celtics. He suffered from cardiac arrest on the court in the summer of 1993. Reggie had an overly enlarged and thickened heart. He was 27 years old.

Ryan Shay collapsed during the marathon Olympic trials in New York in November last year. Ryan was diagnosed with an enlarged heart at the age of 14. He died of the disease 14 years later.

Perhaps the most recent fatality is Gyorgy Kolonics, the two-time Hungarian gold medallist in canoeing. He died less than a month before the Olympics start during a training session last July 15. The probable cause of death was heart failure. It would have been the 36-year old’s 5th Olympic Games.

The survivors

There are others out there whose athletic careers have been cut short by heart disease but are lucky to survive and tell their stories.

In his blog, elite cyclist Craig Cook tells us his story. Craig was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia earlier this year.

This blog is about my condition, the things that might have led to it, and the course of treatment I am on. It is written as a resource for other endurance athletes who might have arrhythmias“,

writes Craig in his blog V-TACH where he continues to chronicle his battle against the monster of heart disease.

Greg Welch was a triathlete – triathlon is also known as the “Iron Man” competition – and he was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia in 1999. He experienced the attacks during the Hawaiian Iron Man competition but still managed to finish the race in 11th place. He had to retire from competitive sports and was joined his triathlete wife Sian in retirement shortly after.

John Morton is a biathlete who represented the US at the Winter Olympics in 1972 and 1976. In 2003, he was diagnosed with a 50% occlusion of the coronary artery. The 57-year old was shocked with the diagnosis.

“…although I might have worried that I’d someday be a candidate for knee or hip replacement surgery, I never for a moment questioned the durability of my heart. If exercise was the key to a healthy heart, I figured mine would still be beating long after the rest of me had collapsed in a heap.”

Read more about Tim’s subsequent cardiac surgery and successful rehabilitation in his article “The Heart of an Olympian.”

Other endurance athletes whose careers were cut short by arrhythmia or irregular heart rhythm include the Italian six-day cyclist Marco Villa who won a bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and Tour de France cyclist Bobbie Julich.

The causes

The most likely culprits for sports-related cardiac problems are hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and ventricular tachycardia.

According to the Medline Medical Encyclopedia, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is “a condition in which the heart muscle becomes thick.” This thickening makes it harder for the heart to pump blood and reduces the efficiency of the valves as well. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a major cause of death among young athletes who seem perfectly healthy. In many cases, the condition is asymptomatic and the first signs of the disease can be acute – collapse and sudden death during physical exertion.

Recent studies show that sudden cardiac death is more common among black athletes especially those originating from West Africa or the Caribbean, compared to other ethic groups and this may be due to left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH), a form of asymmetrical cardiomyopathy. Black athletes have been observed to have thicker left ventricular walls compared to white athletes. LVH is reflected in abnormal ECG readings during preparticipation screening.

Ventricular tachycardia is a rapid heart beat initiated within the ventricles, characterized by 3 or more consecutive premature ventricular beats. While a normal heart beats 60 to 100 times every minute, this rate can go up to 160 or even over 200 in cases of ventricular tachycardia. This form of arrhythmia can be due to pre-existing heart conditions.

However, recent studies report about “acquired arrhythmia” among endurance athletes. It was not until very recently that athlete’s heart (dilatation, hypertrophy and enhanced vagal tone) was recognized as a possible risk factor for the development of atrial fibrillation, establishing a link between excessive training and the presence of arrhythmias, according to an editorial in the European Heart Journal.

In subsequent posts, I will review recent studies that may clarify whether too much of a good thing such as physical exercise may be bad for the heart.

In the meantime, let’s cheer on our Olympians and hope for a cardiac event-free Olympics this year.

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5 Responses to “July Olympic Resource Post: A tribute to athletes battling heart disease”
  1. Sudden Death in athletes is a difficuly problem. Someone with a hypertophic cardiomyopathy is at increased risk. I just read about a 28 year old male who was 5 miles into running a marathon and collasped. He had been cleared previously – it then caused him problems. Can be a serious risk


  2. Sorry, Belen, I can’t answer your question. But I’m sure your healthcare provider can help. All the best.

  3. Belen says:

    Thank you for this informative site. Do you know what are the disadvantages of having a spleen removed? Wahat are the dos and dont’s?

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