Sudden Cardiac Death & Runners
It Happens, but Remains Rare
Runners, especially those in good enough shape to compete in marathons and half-marathons, are probably the last people you’d expect to experience sudden cardiac death. And you’d be right — it’s very rare to see these kinds of deaths during races, but it does happen.
Sudden cardiac death indicates a loss of heart function that causes death, explained John Sinden, MD, cardiologist with WakeMed Physician Practices – Raleigh Cardiology. It isn’t the same as a heart attack.
Dr. Sinden said that sudden cardiac arrest occurs when a person experiences a “fatal cardiac rhythm that is not adequate to sustain blood pressure and vital signs.” On the other hand, a heart attack is “a reduction in flow to one of the coronary arteries that results in heart muscle damage or death.” So although sudden cardiac arrest can occur during a heart attack, a heart attack happens because of a blockage to one of the coronary arteries, while sudden cardiac arrest happens because of a misfiring of the heart’s electrical system.
While there have been quite a few headlines about recent deaths at half-marathons in Raleigh and Virginia Beach, the fact is that these types of incidents are exceedingly rare. According to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2012, among 10.9 million runners in marathons and halfmarathons in the U.S. between Jan. 1, 2000, and May 31, 2010, there were 59 incidences of cardiac arrest, 42 of which were fatal. That boils down to an incidence of 1 in 259,000 for sudden death during a marathon or halfmarathon. And to put that into perspective, according to the National Safety Council, that’s far less common than dying from being struck by lightning (1 in 134,906).
Although sudden cardiac death during a race might be uncommon, runners should still be knowledgeable about the risks and take all possible steps to ensure they’re well informed about their own health status before pushing themselves. They also need to pay attention to their symptoms, said Dr. Sinden.
“If you’re exercising and feeling faint or lightheaded, like you might pass out, or if you do pass out, you should see your doctor to be evaluated,” said Dr. Sinden. “Even without exercise, if you’re feeling those symptoms, you should be evaluated.”
Dr. Sinden also recommends getting your doctor to sign off on any new or increased exercise routine, even if you feel like you’re in perfect health. He added that while you can’t always determine risk with a physical exam or EKG, an exam can catch some risk factors or rule them out.