Young athletes in British Columbia are at minimal risk of sudden cardiac death, a new study has found.

According to an article published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, just 0.52 per cent of B.C. competitive athletes between the ages of 12 and 35 show signs or symptoms that could lead to sudden cardiac deaths.

High-profile cases involving athletes collapsing and dying suddenly have increased the public’s awareness of the phenomenon, which Dr. Saul Isserow of Sports Cardiology B.C. calls “black swan” cases, but the good news is experts say rates of sudden cardiac death remain extremely low and new screening protocols developed in the province are helping identify those at risk more efficiently.

“The first thing is that sports are safe and beneficial. The prevalence of those conditions that can cause sudden death in young athletes is exactly the same in our population as has been reported elsewhere. No more, no less,” Isserow told Metro. “It’s unusual when a young individual dies. It’s always profoundly sad and unexpected and profoundly impactful, but it’s quite rare.”

Sports Cardiology B.C., based out of Vancouver Coastal Health and the University of British Columbia, has developed a screening protocol involving a detailed questionnaire and an electrocardiogram to help identify people who have a family history, genetic traits or irregularities that could prove to be fatal.

The protocol is far more accurate than the American Heart Association’s standard questionnaire, he said.

“The screening process used in the past involved a questionnaire that was developed in the 1960s and wasn’t very specific at all. One of the questions was, ‘Have you ever had chest pain?’ I mean, everybody has had chest pain at some stage,” Isserow said. “‘Do you get short of breath if you exert yourself?’ Everybody who exerts themselves enough gets short of breath. So that wasn’t specific enough. When we ask a kid in the [Sports Cardiology B.C.] questionnaire if they’ve passed out, we can differentiate between an ordinary faint and a potentially fatal case of passing out.”

The most effective tool, Isserow said, is the electrocardiogram, or ECG.

Of the seven cases identified in the study showing a risk for sudden cardiac death (out of 1,419 B.C. athletes that were screened), six were discovered because of an abnormal ECG.

Only two would have been identified as at risk through the traditional questionnaire and standard physical examination.

“In the majority of [sudden cardiac deaths], they have no symptoms,” he said. “The ECG can pick up a lot of these genetic causes, like a thickened heart muscle or an electrical abnormality.”

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