Why Do Super Fit Pro Athletes Keep Suffering Cardiac Arrests?

Why do super fit pro athletes keep suffering cardiac arrests?

They’re usually the last people you’d expect to have health issues, but recent incidents involving sporting stars prove that anyone can be at risk.

ON SUNDAY MORNING, 59 minutes into an English Premier League game against Bournemouth, Luton Town centre back and captain Tom Lockyer suddenly collapsed. Lockyer, 29, laid sprawled across the field unconscious, surrounded by concerned teammates and medical staff. He had just gone into cardiac arrest, for the second time this year.

A responsive Lockyer was treated by medical staff on the field before being stretchered off and taken to hospital for further treatment. With the score locked at 1-1, the match was paused and later abandoned. Lockyer is now in a stable condition and is undergoing further tests in hospital before his path to recovery can be determined.

This is not the first time Lockyer has had a mid-game medical emergency. In May of this year, he collapsed due to what was later determined to be an irregular heartbeat, the result of what Lockyer called the “least severe heart condition you could have”. He had heart surgery to correct the condition and was cleared to return to the field, but his latest incident could force a revaluation of his safety, should his professional sporting career continue.

Lockyer is not the first athlete to collapse in the middle of a game. Similar scenes unfolded at the 2020 European football championship, when Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed mid-game, and required CPR and defibrillation on the field. NFL player and Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin also suffered an on-field cardiac arrest in 2022 after taking a hit to the chest during a tackle. Hamlin’s incident was the result of an episode of commotio cordis, which is fatal in 97 per cent of cases and only occurs when cardiac rhythm is disrupted by a chest-blow during a specific 40-millisecond span in the electrical cycle of the heart. Earlier this year, Bronny James, the son of NBA legend LeBron James and a promising basketball prospect in his own right, went into cardiac arrest during a practice session. Bronny has now recovered and returned to playing for the University of Southern California.

If we asked you to think of someone likely to suffer a cardiac arrest, you’d probably think of someone displaying a number of contributing factors such as obesity, a poor lifestyle, or advanced age. But these athletes are none of those things. These guys are not only young, they’re also undoubtedly super fit, and as athletes, they strive for optimal cardiovascular function. So, why is it that every few months another athlete is suddenly collapsing? The answer demonstrates the importance of being proactive with your heart health.



What is cardiac arrest and what causes it?


Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating due to electrical issues and subsequently can’t pump blood around the body. When this happens, the brain and vital organs don’t get the blood needed to operate. With no treatment, cardiac arrest can cause death within 10 minutes. Each year in Australia, about 25,000 people have a cardiac arrest out of hospital, but it’s estimated that as few as 5 per cent of these people survive to leave hospital and go home, according to the National Heart Foundation.

There are a number of factors that contribute to cardiac arrest, the biggest being age. Some of the biggest causes of cardiac arrest are plaque build-up in arteries, and coronary disease. While both can be caused by an unhealthy lifestyle and obesity, they become far more prevalent with age. For that reason, cardiac arrest is rare in people under the age of 35.


Why are athletes suffering cardiac arrests?


Given that cardiac arrests most commonly occur in the 45-75 age range, it is unusual for someone under 35 to have one. Cardiac arrest in people under 35 is usually attributed to underlying heart problems and genetic defects, which rings true in Lockyer’s case, as his first cardiac arrest was the result of an atrial flutter, though Lockyer had surgery to correct the condition, and it is unknown if it was the cause of his second episode.

Heart abnormalities alone will not cause frequent cardiac arrests. Many heart conditions and congenital defects have few noticeable symptoms and can often go undetected until later in life. But for people with underlying conditions, exercise can act as a trigger. In the case of professional athletes, the high-intensity situations they have become accustomed to in their line of work can be what is causing their cardiac arrests.

While exercise is one of the best ways to improve heart health, in rare cases it can also cause irregular heart rhythm. Athletes are incredibly over-exposed to these high-risk situations. With sports becoming faster, more physical and more demanding, situations which can potentially trigger cardiac arrest are becoming more frequent.

Tom Lockyer, Christian Eriksen, Damar Hamlin and Bronny James could have gone a much longer time without knowing they had heart defects that made them vulnerable to cardiac arrest. But the very activity that they’ve made careers out of—high-intensity exercise—is likely what triggered their medical episodes. Sport isn’t going to get any less intense, and unless underlying heart conditions are detected sooner, we’ll likely continue to see potentially fatal incidents involving athletes.


How can you protect yourself from cardiac arrest?


Living a healthy lifestyle, maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise, as well as avoiding cigarettes and alcohol, are the simplest ways to reduce your risk of cardiac arrest. If you are concerned you have an underlying heart condition, see a doctor, and if you display symptoms, an echocardiogram may be required. An echocardiogram is effectively an ultrasound of your heart, which allows doctors to check if there are any problems with your heart’s valves and chambers and see how strongly your heart pumps blood.


Getty Images | Marc Atkins



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By Cayle Reid

Cayle Reid is a fan of everything sports and fitness. He spends his free time at the gym, on his surfboard or staying up late watching sports in incompatible time zones.

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