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The Number of Middle-School Athletes Dying of Sudden Cardiac Arrest Is Increasing

A mix of hormonal upheaval, racial inequality, and yes, toxic masculinity is killing 13-year-olds by pushing them well past their limits

When you think of youth sports, you probably imagine crowds of raucous parents in the stands cheering on their son or daughter. Or maybe the ear-to-ear smile on a kid who’s just had a game-winning hit, touchdown or basket. In other words, when you think of youth sports, you think of purity and innocence. What you’re almost certainly not thinking about is the young kid, most likely a boy, who’s suddenly, and without notice, dying on the field due to an unexpected cardiac arrest.

But it’s most definitely happening — and a growing rate. As reported in USA Today, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association recently found that there were 45 such deaths between 2007 and 2015. “The majority of these sudden deaths were cardiac-related while playing basketball,” per USA Today. “Sixteen of them were on the basketball court (35.6 percent), seven apiece while playing baseball or football (15.6 percent) and six occurred while playing soccer (13.4 percent).”

In the study, the organization noted that comprehensive studies have been made at the high school and collegiate level, but this is the first of its kind around the middle-school age group. “The vast majority were boys at an average age of 13, and two-thirds took place at practice, not in a game,” reports USA Today.

“At the high school level there are state athletics governing bodies that govern all of the sports, and they mandate that if any kind of major injury or death happens, you have to report it,” adds Brad Endres, assistant director of sports safety at the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut and lead author of the study. “And so there are databases where you go online and report the catastrophic injury or sudden death. And so, there’s much more specific and much more reliable data at the high school level.”

To that end, Endres says that based on their data, there’s been an increase in the number of sudden cardiac deaths during the years they began tracking data for their study, even though participation rates had remained steady. In fact, during the last year of the study, the number of sudden cardiac deaths more than doubled. “Over the course of the study, there were 1.83 deaths per 10 million athlete-years, but in 2015, it increased to 3.84 deaths per 10 million,” reports USA Today.

Endres does admit, however, that he’s not sure if the rate is actually increasing, or if it’s simply that more people are recognizing it for what it is. “You see this with concussions,” says Endres. “When concussions started becoming more mainstream and they started making movies and reporting about it, more people became aware of what a concussion actually was. And so, around that same time you saw the incidence rate of concussions skyrocket.”

Still, Endres says that the findings of their study were similar to what was happening in high school and collegiate sports. “By that, I mean males experienced the highest amount of sudden death in the sport of basketball,” he says. “So whenever you do have a sudden death, even though it’s rare, they tend to look similar by being males, the sport of basketball and cardiac related.”

Why are a disproportionate number of sudden cardiac arrest victims young men? Endres contends that it could be because boys have higher risk-taking tendencies. “Males just have a tendency to go harder and to push themselves physically,” says Endres. “They’re convinced not to listen to their body. They’re saying, ‘I’m going to keep going.’”

Mara Mather, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, has found in her research that gender differences are amplified even further under stress. “Stress has opposite effects on men and women, making men more risk-taking and women less risk-taking,” says Mather. Interestingly, Mather also says that while her research wasn’t specifically on adolescent boys and girls, she does think that increased risk-taking behavior (i.e., pushing your body beyond its limit) could be linked with puberty. “Our (unpublished) data indicates that older adults don’t show this sex difference in the effects of stress on risk-taking, suggesting it may be driven by hormones,” says Mather.

All of which makes sense, considering that the average age (13) of the vast majority of boys who died during practice coincides with the beginning of puberty for adolescent males.

Endres adds that while their study wasn’t able to delineate between race and ethnicity because “that’s not reported in the media reports,” it has been reported that at the high school and collegiate level, African Americans are at a higher risk of sudden cardiac arrest. In fact, as recently as February, one study found that “income and educational disparities were the main factors explaining the racial differences in risk, followed by hypertension and diabetes, according to the study,” reports Medical Express.

All that said, Endres emphasizes that sudden cardiac arrest is still a very rare occurrence. “You’re looking at four to five deaths throughout the entire country per year,” he says. “So, it’s super rare that this ever happens. But we also know that one death a year is too much.”