Any time someone suffers cardiac arrest, it’s scary and devastating. But given the recent news of cardiac arrest in professional football player Damar Hamlin, who plays for the Buffalo Bills, and Bronny James, LeBron James’s oldest son, it seems younger people and pro athletes are suffering from the heart condition more than ever.
“Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops pumping oxygenated blood to the body, leading to loss of breathing and consciousness,” says Kelvin Lau, MD, a board-certified pediatric cardiologist at Pediatrix Medical Group in Tampa, FL. “It is different from a heart attack, which is when there is blockage of oxygenated blood flow to the heart itself,” he explains.
It’s also worth noting that young people who experience cardiac arrest typically do not have symptoms or any other indications of an underlying heart condition, Dr. Lau says. “It is therefore essential that children and adolescents are regularly evaluated by their primary care doctors,” he explains. “A single evaluation one year does not suffice, as heart conditions evolve and can manifest over time, which is why sports clearance is required annually by most schools,” he explains.
So, is cardiac arrest common in young people? Do athletics play a role? And how can you protect yourself and your heart earlier on in life? Here’s what experts told POPSUGAR.
What Is Cardiac Arrest?
Put simply, cardiac arrest is when the heart stops beating or beats so fast that it stops pumping blood, says Matthew Martinez, MD, a board-certified cardiologist and the director of Atlantic Health System Sports Cardiology at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, NJ. Some people may have warning signs before it occurs with symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, palpitations, and/or sudden loss of consciousness, or it may happen without warning, he explains. As a result, the person collapses and becomes unresponsive, which can be fatal if treatment is not promptly delivered, he adds.
Do Athletics Play a Role in Cardiac Arrest?
Not necessarily. “Athletics does not play a role in sudden cardiac death, but if people have underlying cardiac disease such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (a disease where the heart muscle thickens), the risk of sudden death is higher during competitive sports,” says Sean Levchuck, MD, a board-certified cardiologist and the chair of pediatric cardiology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island, NY.
For those who do have underlying cardiac conditions, the immediate stress of vigorous exertion can trigger a potentially lethal arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat, Dr. Lau says. “More rapid progression of disease can also be seen in certain conditions with consistent high-intensity training,” he explains. “Competitive athletics can also result in stressors that may lead to cardiac arrest in heart diseases that are not typically heritable, such as in myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) or commotio cordis, where a forceful impact to the chest results in traumatic injury to the heart.”
Just remember that cardiac arrest can happen at any time, while working out or at rest, and in most people, exercise is not dangerous, Dr. Martinez adds.
Why Are Younger People Suffering From Cardiac Arrest?
Although pro athletes like Hamlin and James have recently suffered from cardiac arrest, there has not been an overall increase in cardiac arrest among young people, Dr. Martinez says. In fact, cardiac arrest in young people is pretty rare. “Sudden cardiac arrest can happen in those with and without known heart disease and happens about 375,000 times a year due to various causes, but only three to four percent occur in children,” he explains.
“I think the events surrounding Bronny James and Damar Hamlin are more likely a coincidence than an actual increase in incidence of sudden cardiac arrest in young people less than 35 years old,” Dr. Lau says. “However, cardiac arrest in young people does occur, often unexpectedly, and in those we regard as some of the healthiest people, the competitive athletes.”
What’s the Connection Between COVID-19 and Cardiac Arrest?
There is no proven association between sudden cardiac arrest and COVID-19, however, according to a recent 2022 study, heart-attack deaths across all ages in the United States have become more common. “Viruses, like COVID-19, can cause myocarditis, which is inflammation, and potentially scar the heart muscle,” Dr. Martinez says. “Scarring can lead to the heart rate becoming irregular, and in some circumstances cardiac arrest, but this is not new with COVID-19, and viruses have been a known cause of heart damage and risk for cardiac arrest for a long time,” he explains. Myocarditis itself can be asymptomatic or make you severely ill, requiring hospitalization, Dr. Lau adds.
Now, if someone is recovering from myocarditis, whether from COVID-19 or not, and starts to exercise prior to being medically cleared (aka your doctor gives the green light), they may be at risk for significant rhythm disturbances that can result in cardiac arrest, Dr. Lau says. “Fortunately, COVID-19 is not the etiology in cardiac arrest seen in the vast majority of young athletes,” he explains. However, if a young athlete recently had COVID-19 and was diagnosed with myocarditis, it’s essential they are evaluated by a cardiologist before returning to competitive sports, he adds.
How to Protect Your Heart From Cardiac Arrest
The most important thing someone can do to lower cardiac arrest events in all individuals, including athletes, is to have a well-designed emergency action plan and knowledge about early use of CPR and AEDs, Dr. Martinez explains. “Anyone can be a first responder and learn how to save a life,” he says.
Additionally, the risk of sudden cardiac arrest or death in young people is based on the presence of preexisting conditions that go undiagnosed, Dr. Levchuck adds. “If a child is a competitive athlete at the high school age or older, a baseline cardiac examination would be a good way to protect themselves or lower the risk by potentially discovering life-threatening conditions,” he adds. Talk to your doctor about yearly heart workups and electrocardiograms, which record the electrical signals in the heart, or visit cardiovascular screenings through organizations like Who We Play For.
Another pro tip? Stay active! “Exercise is medicine, and the best thing to do for your heart is to maintain a healthy bodyweight, reduce your risk factors for coronary artery disease (lower cholesterol, quit smoking, and control diabetes), and exercise,” Dr. Martinez says.