Reports that someone thought to be “perfectly healthy” collapsed while playing sports may instill fear in middle-aged men who want to stay physically active. However, a study in Circulation found that sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) during sports activities is uncommon and is often preceded by possible symptoms of heart problems.
Researchers have tracked cases of SCA in Oregon since 2002 in adults ages 35 to 65. As of 2013, only 63 of the 1,247 SCAs they found, or 5%, happened either during or within one hour of engaging in activities such as jogging, bicycling, basketball, golf, or tennis. It occurred more often in men, although it’s possible this was because the men were more likely to engage in sports than women.
Many of the SCAs linked to sports were not quite as out-of-the-blue as they may have appeared. A third of victims had reported a possible symptom of heart problems, like chest pain or shortness of breath, in the previous week. More than half had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
How much should athletic older men worry about such sudden collapses? The study authors stated that the small risk of sudden cardiac arrest should be considered in light of the substantial long-term heart benefits of regular exercise. “The findings from this study should in no way discourage patients with cardiovascular risk factors from engaging in regular, appropriate physical exercise within a framework of simple guiding rules from the treating physician,” they wrote.