Instances of sudden cardiac death among college athletes have declined over the last 20 years, a new study presented to the American Heart Association and published in Circulation Monday shows, and researchers said no deaths in the study period could be attributed to Covid-caused myocarditis
The new research looked at deaths in National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes between July 2002 and June of 2022 and found that of the 1,102 who died, 143 of them were victims of sudden cardiac death—the most common medical cause of death among the group.
Researchers said the reason for the decline in cardiac arrest deaths is still unknown, but that it could be attributed to more robust response plans by college athletic departments, better resuscitation training, availability of external defibrillators and an increase in the number of schools that require athletes to undergo an electrocardiogram, or EKG, before they’re cleared to play.
The most common postmortem findings among the athletes either found no specific reason for the sudden cardiac arrest or found that idiopathic left ventricular hypertrophy (the thickening of the heart’s left pumping chamber) or possible cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle) were to blame.
Half of sudden cardiac deaths occurred during physical exertion and only two were caused by a blow to the chest like the one experienced by Buffalo Bills Safety Damar Hamlin last year.
Eight deaths were attributed to an inflammation of the heart called myocarditis in the study period, though only one of those happened in the time since the Covid pandemic began, and that death was a case of giant-cell myocarditis which is “a pattern not associated with Covid-19,” the study reads.
The study did not look at the athletes who’ve survived sudden cardiac arrests, like LeBron James’ son Bronny, who collapsed on the University of Southern California basketball court earlier this year and had his condition attributed to a likely congenital heart defect.
The study found that black men were more likely to experience sudden cardiac death than their female counterparts or people of other races, and that basketball players are affected by the condition more than athletes in other sports.
20%. That’s the percentage of sudden cardiac deaths among NCAA athletes that happen in basketball players, according to a statement published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Basketball players make up only 4% of all male athletes in the organization.
Bronny James’ collapse earlier this year came amid increased scrutiny of myocarditis in young people and its potential link to Covid-19 vaccines. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does report an association between mRNA COVID-19 vaccines and the inflammation of the heart muscle, it’s “extremely rare.” There were 1,626 cases of myocarditis reported among more than 354 million primary doses and 37 cases of myocarditis among more than 81 million booster doses, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Those who contract Covid-19 are much more likely to later experience myocarditis than those who receive the vaccine, studies show. The highest risk group for developing myocarditis from the second dose of the vaccine is found in boys between the ages of 12 and 17, for which the case rate is 35.9 per 100,000 people. Those in the same age category who are infected with Covid see a rate of myocarditis of 64.9 per 100,000, according to Yale University researchers.
Tesla founder and X CEO Elon Musk responded to the initial news of James’s cardiac arrest by blaming it on the Covid-19 vaccine. “We cannot ascribe everything to the vaccine, but, by the same token, we cannot ascribe nothing,” he tweeted. “Myocarditis is a known side-effect. The only question is whether it is rare or common.” The company later removed a fact-check from Musk’s post and a Fox News anchor repeated the claim, the Independent reported. Fear of the Covid-19 vaccine has spurred anti-vax sentiments across the country and conspiracy theories are likely to blame for much of the resistance to the shot, NPR reported. The World Health Organization has called the rapid spread of Covid vaccine misinformation an “infodemic.