Are Athletes More Prone to Sudden Cardiac Death Than Non-athletes?

are athletes more or less likely to die from sudden cardiac arrest

What You Need to Know About Athletes & Sudden Cardiac Arrest

The first recorded incident of sudden cardiac death occurred in 490 BC when Pheidippides, a young Greek courier, ran 26.2 miles from the battlefield in Marathon to Athens to deliver news of the Greek victory over the Persians. 


“Joy to you, we’ve won,” he reportedly said, before collapsing.


High-profile athlete deaths certainly catch the media’s (and history’s) attention, but are athletes more likely to experience sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) or sudden cardiac death (SCD)? 


A study published in Circulation, the American Heart Association journal, found that National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes have a significantly higher incidence of sudden cardiac death than previously thought, especially among men, African Americans, and male basketball players.


“This study confirms our earlier findings that SCD in athletes is a serious problem and for some high-risk groups, alarming,” said lead author Dr. Kimberly G. Harmon, a University of Washington professor of family medicine and UW Medicine sports medicine physician. “We need to consider better ways to identify these athletes before they die, as the currently recommended screening strategy of history and physical is ineffective.”


Most of these sudden deaths are due to underlying and undiagnosed cardiac conditions — many of which could be detected with an EKG. 


Tragically, however, SCD remains the most frequent medical cause of sudden death in athletes. The precise incidence of SCD among high school athletes is unknown, but estimates range from 1 in 23,000 to 1 in 300,000 (National Library of Medicine).


But this doesn’t mean you should hang up your running shoes! 


“It is well recognized that exercise is one of the most powerful tools for improving health overall. Exercise improves all cardiovascular risk factors, including weight and blood pressure, increases HDL-C and lowers LDL-C, and increases sensitivity to insulin … even a small amount of exercise provides significant risk reduction compared to a sedentary lifestyle” (American College of Cardiology).



What Causes Sudden Cardiac Arrest and Sudden Cardiac Death in Athletes?

With the exception of commotio cordis, most causes of sudden cardiac death are related to congenital or acquired cardiovascular disease. However, about 20% of cases show no obvious cause and remain undiagnosed after autopsy. 


  • Obstructive Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM): A genetic condition that causes the heart muscle cells to enlarge. This enlargement then causes the wall of the ventricle to thicken, which may block blood flow. Although usually not fatal, HCM often goes undetected and is the most common cause of heart-related sudden death in people — athletes and non-athletes — under 30.
  • Congenital coronary artery abnormalities: Sometimes people are born with abnormal arteries. If arteries become compressed during exercise, inadequate blood flow to the heart may lead to SCA.
  • Long QT syndrome: Is also an inherited heart rhythm disorder. Abnormalities in the proteins in the heart may lead to fainting and can cause life-threatening arrhythmias.
  • Commotio Cordis: Caused by a sudden blow to the chest, it can cause ventricular fibrillation (v-fib). Athletes are especially susceptible.


Cardio Partners offers CPR, first aid, AED, and bloodborne pathogen training courses in all 50 states in traditional classroom settings and in blended learning courses. To learn more about our courses or to equip your school’s athletic facilities with an AED, call our team at 866-349-4363 or email Cardio Partners at We’d love to hear from you!


DISCLAIMER: Information and resources found on the website and blog are intended to educate, inform, and motivate readers to make their health and wellness decisions after consulting with their healthcare provider. The authors are not healthcare providers. NO information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any disease or condition.