Background—The incidence and etiology of sudden cardiac death (SCD) in athletes is debated with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) often reported as the most common etiology.
Methods and Results—A database of all NCAA deaths (2003 – 2013) was developed. Additional information and autopsy reports were obtained when possible. Cause of death was adjudicated by an expert panel. There were 4,242,519 athlete-years (AY) and 514 total student athlete deaths. Accidents were the most common cause of death (257, 50%, 1:16,508 AY) followed by medical causes (147, 29%, 1:28,861 AY). The most common medical cause of death was SCD (79, 15%, 1:53,703 AY). Males were at higher risk than females 1:37,790 AY vs. 1:121,593 AY (IRR 3.2, 95% CI, 1.9-5.5, p < .00001), and black athletes were at higher risk than white athletes 1:21,491 AY vs. 1:68,354 AY (IRR 3.2, 95% CI, 1.9-5.2, p < .00001). The incidence of SCD in Division 1 male basketball athletes was 1:5,200 AY. The most common findings at autopsy were autopsy negative sudden unexplained death (AN-SUD) in 16 (25%) and definitive evidence for HCM was seen in 5 (8%). Media reports identified more deaths in higher divisions (87%, 61%, and 44%) while percentages from the internal database did not vary (87%, 83%, and 89%). Insurance claims identified only 11% of SCDs.
Conclusions—The rate of SCD in NCAA athletes is high, with males, black athletes and basketball players at substantially higher risk. The most common finding at autopsy is AN-SUD. Media reports are more likely to capture high profile deaths, while insurance claims are not a reliable method for case identification.
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