Good Question: Should Young Athletes’ Hearts Be Screened?

By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When 16-year-old Wes Leonard suddenly died right after hitting the winning shot in his Michigan high school basketball game, doctors say he had an enlarged heart. But how many of us are walking around with enlarged hearts, and should high school athletes be getting tested for the problem?

“It really strikes fear in everyone’s heart. We look at these young competitive athletes as the epitome of health,” said Dr. Peter Eckman, a cardiologist with University of Minnesota Physicians.

The University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview treated Zach Gabbard, a Perham, Minn. basketball player whose heart stopped in the middle of a game.

“There are some tests that are highly suggestive,” said Eckman.

An electrocardiogram (ECG) would give clues. In Italy, high school students have to get an ECG before they play any competitive sports.

“There’s a significant debate in the scientific community on this,” he explained.

According to the American Heart Association, if you took 10 million high school athletes and gave them all a $75 ECG, it would cost $750 million.

“And that ignores the fact that 10 percent would need additional testing. The total cost is about $2 billion per year,” said Eckman.

The AHA estimates that it would cost $3.4 million to prevent each theoretical death. In a report on cardiovascular screening, the AHA writes: “The fundamental issue … concerns the practicality and feasibility of establishing a continuous annual national program for many years at a cost of approximately $2 billion per year.”

In addition, according to Eckman, athletes can have enlarged hearts for many reasons. Sometimes it’s a genetic defect, sometimes it’s because the heart is a muscle and they’re athletes.

But if the hearts walls are thicker than normal, that can be a problem called Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. According to the AHA, HCM is the most common reason U.S. athletes die suddenly.

“People with that condition have an increased risk of electrical problems in their heart that lead to an electrical storm,” he said, adding the abnormal thickness of the heart walls “blocks the cavity of the heart which makes it difficult for blood to get out.”

But an ECG wouldn’t tell you about what caused Zach Gabbard’s heart trouble. According to Gabbard’s Caringbridge page, he had a viral infection that led to the heart stopping.

“These tests can also turn up a lot of false positives and lead to a lot of worry and unnecessary testing,” said Eckman.

One study of 1.4 million Minnesota student athletes over 12 years found 1,435 died of heart problems. That’s an incidence rate of about 1 death per 200,000 young athletes.

“We hear about [these cases] because it’s so striking, the odds of having it are so low,” said Eckman.

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  • Courteney

    No. Athletes shouldn’t be screened. There are already so many wasteful medical practices that cost everyone more money then it’s really worth. I understand that these very sad and freakish things will still happen, but that is life.

    • Mark

      An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure… but if human life is worthless, why bother to prevent anything, it’s just “wasteful spending” after all. The point of life is to get money and stuff, not health and well being. Welcome to modern society. It’s a disgrace.

  • purple and gold mom

    I think parents should be encouraged to seek EKG’s when the kids get their annual physicals, they have to have a physical to participate in the sports in the first place. Caution should always start at home. I have a fifteen year old. I see how hard he is pushed, and pushes himself. You should always check regularly on kids who are participating. Life is sometimes a delicate, sleep, and exercise are all important too.

    • K.

      There’s another problem with EKGs………….they are not conclusive for the female heart. I know what I am talking about as I did my thesis on women and heart disease. Most of the simple cardiology tests were created and tested on men………the results do not translate to women as the female heart is different in its physiology and response to stress. The only tests that have some level of accuracy are, unfortuntely, more invasive such as angiograms. An echocardiogram would be a more useful test for females than a plain EKG but, again, it isn’t perfect as it was designed originally for the male heart.

  • Paula

    That was my thought also, these kids already need a sports physical to participate in sports. Concerns should be taken up with your physician.

  • Ellen

    An ekg only $75? A cheap price for something so important. Even if they only get it once every-other-year, the peace of mind would be worth it. Kid are pushed or push themselves way too hard in many sports. I think high school sports are WAY overrated. Way too much school money and effort goes on in these programs. Yes,
    exercise is necesary and an important part of health. But it can be achieved via phy ed classes and intramural competition. Or time spent with family or friends on things like riding bike, hiking, skating, etc. No uniform required, no hazing, no gas-guzzling bus rides to other schools etc.

  • CommonSense

    More knee jerk reaction from the media and government. Kids already are required to have physicals to play HS sports. Children’s health is primarily a parent’s responsibility. For god sake, quit making a mountain out of a mole hill.

  • JaCkie Hartman


  • CBH

    In the 10 years before Italy started universal screening with ECG’s, there were 12 sudden cardiac deaths in athletes in that country. In the 10 years since they started universal screening, there have been 13. Universal screening with ECG’s is not foolproof.

  • SD

    If you all think that high school screenings that pass as the required “sports physical” to play sports in our public schools would catch heart issues, then you are sadly mistaken. And the article spoke of ecg’s not ekg’s…quite a difference in diagnostic screening right there.
    The answer to all this is not crystal clear. But, becoming more informed on the subject of HCM and the like, symptoms to follow up on, and community involvement would all be a start for EVERYONE.
    Some of our public schools are using donated time with medical doctors and their equipment. Those volunteering all this may “write off” these donations on their taxes but I doubt it in itself increases your medical costs.
    Easy to say that screening is a waste of money until it affects you or your loved ones. As is the case with most things.

  • Linnea J Hoff

    As a parent of a young adult son, who has HCM and had a defibrillator/pacemaker implanted when he was 18, think an echo should be required for athletes-Given the fact that usually the first symptom of this condition is death, if having echoes could save even some lives it is a worthwhile expense.

  • What’s your take on this? | Us Girls..Our Views

    […] So, what do you think? Should we test all our young athletes for this? […]

  • MinnesotaTom

    Sports are an insurmountable waste of tax payer money and resources but have fun being able to throw balls in holes and running back and forth while getting ankle injuries for fun

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