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Johns Hopkins Health - Keeping the Beat

Summer 2015
Issue No. 29

Keeping the Beat

Date: July 2, 2015

As summer play kicks into high gear for young athletes, a Johns Hopkins cardiologist wants parents to know some heart health facts.


Have fun! Play hard! Be safe! Three commonly expressed sentiments whenever parents send their kids out to play sports. But what’s almost never on a mom or dad’s mind is whether a child’s heart is strong enough to get him or her through all the fun and action. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2,000 people under the age of 25 will die from sudden cardiac death (SCD) every year. That’s when the heart suddenly and completely stops.

It’s hard to say how many of these deaths occur in competitive athletes. “If an athlete dies during a formal competition, it’s tracked. But if an athlete is at home and happens to die, it’s less likely to be counted,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Theodore Abraham, M.D. Nonetheless, the risk of SCD is three times greater in competitive athletes than in sedentary students.

Among the leading culprits behind SCD is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, an often-hidden genetic problem that causes the heart’s electrical system to suddenly fail. (See “HCM Up Close” for details.) But unless people are screened for HCM or other dangerous heart conditions, they wouldn’t necessarily know they had cause for concern until it triggered a life-threatening event. 

A program called Hopkins Heart Hype offers young athletes (primarily teenagers and college students) a comprehensive heart screening. Although many athletic programs use a 12-point health questionnaire and a physical exam to clear kids for play, “we think that’s inadequate,” says Abraham. Heart Hype adds more screenings, chiefly a blood pressure check, a test of heart rhythm and an ultrasound. Overkill? Abraham doesn’t think so, citing the screening’s ability to identify at-risk athletes the vast majority of the time. He encourages parents to talk to their family doctor about enhanced screenings and family health history.

“Although it is rare, if we identify a problem, we can intervene and help kids stay active,” Abraham says, which might mean advising someone against participation in a high-intensity sport, or having a defibrillator implanted. “Given that if we find a condition, we could save a life, it seems reasonable to do these screenings up front.”

HCM Up Close

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a rare, inherited condition that causes parts of the heart to thicken abnormally during puberty, making it beat less efficiently.

  1. Why it’s a concern It can lead to heart failure. In fact, it’s the leading cause of heart-related sudden death in people under the age of 30, yet often the condition remains hidden.
  2. Who’s at risk HCM affects 1 in 500 people. Among those considered high risk are people who have a family history of sudden cardiac death.
  3. What you can do Early screening is key. Once a diagnosis is made, there are a number of treatments that can help people lead full lives.

Discover More About Hopkins Heart Hype

Watch Johns Hopkins cardiologist Theodore Abraham, M.D., break down key details of our Heart Hype program at hopkinsmedicine.org/heart/hcm.

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