Thursday, February 03, 2005

Sudden death

Experts from the European Society of Cardiology have recommended that young athletes in organised sport should have a detailed health check, an analysis of their family medical history and an electrocardiogram (ECG) before they take part in sport. Sporting activity does not cause heart problems but can induce a sudden heart attack in those with 'silent' disease, as in the case of Cameroon footballer Marc-Vivien Foe, who collapsed and died during an international match in 2003. One of the lead researchers, Dr Domenico Corrado, told the BBC that adolescents and young adults in competitive sport have 'a two-and-a-half times higher risk of sudden death' than those not involved in competitive sport.

Sudden death is extremely rare. The BBC story notes an Italian study which suggests such deaths occur in one in every 50,000 athletes a year. As the medical director of the British Heart Foundation, professor Peter Weissberg, told the BBC: 'To identify these rare cases, you'd have to screen a large number of individuals at great cost to the health service.'

These tests are often not very clear cut. Some results can be difficult to interpret. So situations would arise where perfectly healthy people were told, on a precautionary basis, not to take part in sport - denying them access to a fulfilling activity. That such an idea could have any credence illustrates the problems of our safety-first culture. Once we pursue the goal of a risk-free existence to its logical conclusion, we can end up incurring considerable expense and worry on rapidly diminishing returns, while avoiding things that are probably harmless.

And such scares then start to contradict one another. How does this report sit with the wider goal of preventing heart disease through vigorous physical activity? Better to take part in sport and exercise because they are enjoyable rather than fretting about health risks and benefits.

First published on Spiked's Don't Panic page.

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