Can Running a Marathon lead to Cardiac Arrest?

Recently, numerous reports of race-related cardiac arrests have called the safety of this popular activity into question. A new study finds that participating in marathon races actually is relatively low risk for cardiac arrest, compared to other forms of athletics

While several studies have examined sudden cardiac deaths in young, competitive athletes, there had been no comprehensive study of marathon participants, who are often older and may have unknown medical conditions. Aaron Baggish, MD, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) division of Cardiology, and his colleagues, compiled a database of cardiac arrest cases occurring during or at the finish lines of all U.S. marathons and half-marathons from 2000 until mid-2010. During this ten year span, 11 million people participated in these races. Baggish and his team identified 59 cardiac arrests – 40 at marathons and 19 at half-marathon. More than 85 percent were men. Forty-two victims died.

Letters were sent to cardiac survivors or next of kin, requesting their participation in the study. Those agreeing completed an extensive interview exam; supplying their medical records, including their post cardiac arrest testing and autopsy results. The study showed that most who had experienced a cardiac arrest during the marathons had undiagnosed, pre-existing abnormalities.

Baggish and his team also found that none of the study participants suffering from a coronary disease had any evidence of acute coronary plaque rupture.”This finding provides important reassurance that this (running in marathons) is a generally safe and well tolerated activity. It suggests that the kind of underlying disease that causes cardiac arrest in distance runners may be detectable by a simple stress test prior to race day,” Baggish was quoted as saying.

He also stressed how important it is for bystanders to know CPR and how it can potentially save a runners life.

Baggish says, “CPR is a relatively simple skill that can be learned by everyone in the community. This is a call to action, and we will be offering the first-ever CPR education session for runners, family members and spectators at this year’s Boston Marathon.”

SOURCE: New England Journal of Medicine, January, 2012

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