When it comes to sports-related cardiac arrests, professional basketball players in the US have the highest rates of such events.

Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center in New York City decided to look into this association by examining the structure and function of the hearts of more than 500 present-day NBA players. The results revealed significant differences between the hearts of these athletes and others, along with comparisons between the general populations.

Gathering Relevant Data

Basketball players are usually big men, with an average height of about 6 feet 7 inches and an average weight of 222 pounds. Lead researcher Dr David Engel, a cardiologist at Columbia, stated that the rate of sudden cardiac death – when the heart suddenly stops beating – is almost 30 times higher in NBA players as compared to other athletes. Hence, he and his team decided to investigate what the heart of an elite basketball player looked like. “There is very limited information about the hearts of US athletes”, he added.

The NBA requires pre-season stress echocardiograms of each player every year. A total of 526 athletes who had played in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons were included in the investigation. Their average age was 26, and the size, weight and overall structure and function of their hearts was analyzed. The size of the aorta (largest artery carrying oxygenated blood away from the heart) was also evaluated.

Resolving the Mystery

Looking into various factors, Dr Engel and his team made the following observations:

  • Heart size

Researchers noted that the size of the heart was directly proportional to the size of the athlete, which was expected. Black players also had heavier hearts as compared to white players.

  • Heart structure

Basketball players were seen to have larger aortas as compared to non-athletes. The left ventricle (pumps blood from heart to body) was larger than that of normal adults, but proportional to the athlete’s body size.

Over a quarter of the athletes, especially black players had also developed a thickened left ventricular wall, a condition known as ventricular hypertrophy. The latter could be indicative of diminished heart function and is the most common cause of sudden cardiac death among NBA players, as deduced by background notes.

  • Heart function

Most of the players had normal left ventricular ejection fraction, which demonstrates of how well the left ventricle pumps blood, and a diminished function was rarely seen.

Cardiac Arrest In Basketball Players: Valuable Information Uncovered

According to Dr Gregg Fonarow, a Professor of Cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, various physiological changes occur in an athlete’s body as he exercises and trains for playing and competition, including those observed in the cardiac features analyzed in the study.

“We have, for the first time, gathered data on what the heart of a normal basketball player looks like. This can help us treat athletes with cardiac conditions or risk factors”, said Dr Aaron Baggish, co-author of an editorial accompanying the study. He added the hearts of some athletes such as cyclists and runners may also grow larger as compared to their body size.

Equipped with this baseline data, researchers hope to monitor these basketball players into retirement.

“We are tracking these players annually to observe if any changes develop over time”, stated Dr Engel. “Our goal is to see how the heart adapts after they stop playing and grow old”.

The findings provide a valuable roadmap for the personalized evaluation and screening of an athlete’s hearts. The challenge now is to determine which of these cardiac changes could possibly increase an athlete’s risk of sudden cardiac death, and what potentially effective screening programs need to be established for the assessment of risk factors.