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Is Cardiac Arrest in Athletes Like Bronny James More Common Than We Think?

July 27, 2023

Bronny James – the 18-year-old son of NBA great Lebron James – became the second high-profile athlete to suffer cardiac arrest this year after collapsing during a team basketball practice at University of Southern California.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during a nationally-televised game less than six months ago.

After a brief stay in the intensive care unit, James is in stable condition. But, the incident raises the question – is cardiac arrest in athletes more common than we think?

“Although it’s not an unheard-of event, it’s definitely not a freak one either,” says Antonio Fernandez, MD, medical director of the Hartford Hospital Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. “This brings back memories of other athletes who died in their prime.”

Dr. Fernandez explains what causes cardiac arrest in young, healthy people, and how it can be prevented.

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What causes sudden cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest can have a number of different causes, depending on the age and health of the person. Coronary artery disease is a more likely cause for adults. Cardiomyopathy or a heart arrhythmia are common causes for younger people.

Dr. Fernandez stresses that there’s not currently enough information available on James’ specific case to identify the cause.

> Related: What Could Cause Sudden Cardiac Arrest in NFL Player Damar Hamlin?

Is sudden cardiac arrest common in athletes?

“(How rare this is is) somewhat controversial,” Dr. Fernandez says. “Data from U.S. estimates that it’s close to 1 in 100,000. Data from Italy, where most European data comes from, shows that it’s a lot more frequent.”

Research conducted in coordination with the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) indicates that that 1 in 53,000 athletes are affected, he says, adding that the “data is not perfect (leading to) variance and controversy.”

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Annual physicals can help spot health trouble.

The American Heart Association recommends athletes at all levels get an annual physical which can spot some abnormalities of the heart, Dr. Fernandez says.

“Different leagues have different strategies for screening their athletes,” he admits.

But, one of the best ways to address sudden cardiac arrest is ensuring parents, coaches and others learn CPR and know how to use automated external defibrillators (AEDs), which are often located in sports complexes and fields.

“The best chance for survival for someone suffering cardiac arrest depends on high-quality CPR and the ability to defibrillate within three to five minutes after the collapse,” Dr. Fernandez says.