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Hidden Heart Conditions Kill 12 Young People Every Week

Here's why all sporty youngsters should consider cardiac screening

Hidden heart conditions kill 12 young people every week

Getty + Tim Roberts

Every week in the UK, around 12 young people die suddenly from a previously undiagnosed heart condition. And the majority experience no prior symptoms.

It's those at peak fitness who are most at risk. People like 28-year-old Daniel, a talented footballer who was found dead in bed by his mum at home in North Staffordshire in March 2015. He had no idea he had a heart condition. Ever since, his family has been trying to raise awareness of hidden heart problems.

Dr Steven Cox, chief executive of charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) acknowledges that without a screening test he had over 20 years ago, this could well have happened to him. At 16, he moved to America for a tennis scholarship. As part of the programme he had to have mandatory heart screening. It was during this routine testing that he was found to have an abnormality. It resulted in him having to put his dreams of a sporting career behind him, but it may well have saved his life. He says:

"When I was told I had the condition, they said it happened in one in 7 million people. But we now know it's actually one in a few thousand. For the condition I was identified with – sport is a very bad idea as a career."

How many people are affected?

There are quite a few different hidden heart conditions and Dr Cox says we know now that around 1 in 300 people tested will be identified with a potentially life-threatening problem. But once you know there's an abnormality, you can take steps to manage it and that massively reduces the risk of a tragic event. And it doesn't even necessarily mean, like in Dr Cox's case, that you have to give up sports.

"There have been many people we've identified with a condition including professional athletes who have gone back to playing sport after they've been treated. And about one in a hundred people we test will be found to have a non-life-threatening cardiac condition. They might not be symptomatic at that point but if they're not identified and monitored maybe every 3-5 years to see if they're having an impact on the heart or getting worse, they can cause major problems in the fourth or fifth decade of life."

The red flag symptoms to watch out for

What makes these hidden heart conditions particularly tricky is that they don't often have symptoms. But there are a few signs to watch out for that could hint you're more at risk. If you experience any of these, you need to get checked out straight away.

The first is exercise-related chest pain.

"If you're a fit and healthy athlete and you go out and you're getting chest pain while exercising, you need to be tested and you need to be followed up."

The other one, Dr Cox explains, is fainting without any prior warning.

"If you're walking along and the next thing you're on the floor and you've banged your head because you've not predicted the episode, that's also a red flag sign."

There are lots of reasons for passing out, and it's not usually too much cause for concern. But it's less common for people to wake up on the floor and not understand what happened. It's important to see your doctor if this has happened to you.

Finally, if there's any family history of sudden cardiac deaths or a genetic heart condition, all first degree relatives should be referred to a specialist for testing.

Where to go for screening

CRY's screening programme is overseen by the charity's consultant cardiologist, Professor Sanjay Sharma and now tests around 23,000 young people across the UK every year. The charity uses a simple and non-invasive way of diagnosing most cardiac abnormalities. It is a quick, painless and affordable procedure called an electrocardiogram (ECG).

But you don't have to go to London to take advantage of the service. Regional, community screenings are usually funded by families who have been affected by a young sudden cardiac death, so there is no charge to the individual when CRY's mobile cardiac screening service is bought to a local school, sports club or community venue.

Cardiac screening works. Although it won't identify all young people at risk, in Italy, where screening is mandatory for all young people engaged in organised sport, they have reduced the incidence of young sudden cardiac death by 90%.

Rare but aware

While Dr Cox acknowledges that deadly cardiac events in young people are very rare occurrences, he points out that we cannot afford to be complacent.

"Thankfully any young death is rare. But in the context of young people, this is one of the most common causes of death. 12 people a week is a significant amount of young people. And that's why screening is so important. It provides the only opportunity to identify the vast majority of people at risk."

Story Credit: http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/healthy-living/wellbeing/a27732/sudden-death-in-young-people-undiagnosed-heart-condition/