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Even Elite Athletes May Have Heart Abnormalities

Study of Olympic prospects finds 'large prevalence' of defects

FRIDAY, May 15, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Even the best athletes in the world can have potentially fatal heart defects, a new study says.

"We cannot take it for granted that elite athletes are healthy," said Dr. Paulo Emilio Adami, of the Institute of Sport Medicine and Science of the Italian Olympic Committee in Rome.

Adami and his colleagues examined data from more than 2,300 elite athletes who underwent heart health assessments between 2002 and 2014 as part of their screening to compete in Winter and Summer Olympic Games.

"Even Olympic athletes, regardless of their superior physical performance and astonishing achievements, showed an unexpected large prevalence of cardiovascular abnormalities, including life-threatening conditions," Adami said.

The analysis revealed that 171 athletes (about 7 percent) had some form of structural or electrical heart abnormality. In six of them, the heart defect was considered life-threatening and they were not allowed to compete.

Another 24 athletes were temporarily suspended but eventually allowed to compete in the Olympics under close medical supervision, according to the study.

The findings were scheduled for presentation Friday at a meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Lisbon, Portugal. Data and conclusions presented at meetings are usually considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

"This study demonstrates that a more accurate assessment is necessary for elite professional athletes than for members of the general population, in view of the intensity and stress on their cardiovascular system through so many hours of training and competition," Adami said in a society news release.

He said anyone who wants to be involved in competitive sports should have a medical evaluation. Screening of people in recreational sports would depend on the type of sport and the amount of exertion.

"As a general rule, I would advise a visit to a sports medicine doctor or the GP [general practitioner] beforehand," Adami said.

More information

The American Heart Association has more about congenital heart defects and physical activity.

SOURCE: European Society of Cardiology, news release, May 15, 2015
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