PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – New research led by Oregon Health & Science University found a decline in sudden cardiac deaths among American college athletes over the last 20 years.

Sudden cardiac arrests occur when an electrical malfunction causes a rapid, irregular heart rhythm that stops the heart, according to the teaching hospital.

In 2020, there were 436,000 sudden cardiac deaths, OHSU said, noting that cardiac events can impact young and otherwise healthy athletes.

During the study — which was published Monday in the journal Circulation — researchers used four different databases to look at incidents of sudden cardiac death from 2002 to 2022 and were surprised to see the cardiac events decline.

“The incidents of sudden cardiac death decreased over the 20-year span. This is something very interesting because there have been many media cases recently of sudden cardiac arrest events, which is surprising to many people that the sudden cardiac deaths – so athletes dying – actually decreased,” said lead researcher, Dr. Bradley Petek, OHSU director of sports cardiology.

The research comes after LeBron James’ son, Bronny James, collapsed during a University of Southern California basketball team practice in July. In another public case, NFL player Damar Hamlin collapsed in January after he was hit during a game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Petek explains the decline in sudden cardiac death among college athletes is likely from better CPR education, increased access to AEDs, and increased screenings for cardiac conditions. However, the researchers learned that sudden cardiac death still remained high in certain subgroups.

“Sudden cardiac death was higher among male athletes. It was about four times higher than female athletes,” Petek said. “Athletes of Black race were three times higher than athletes of white race. And in certain sports, basketball and football, we consistently see higher rates of sudden cardiac death in these cohorts.”

He added, “the numbers become pretty staggering once you zoom in on specific sporting disciplines. So, for Division I male basketball players over a four-year career, there is greater than a one in 2,000 chance of having a sudden cardiac death event.”

The researchers do not know what caused higher incidents among basketball players and Black athletes. However, Petek says this has propelled ongoing research to answer those questions.

“To our knowledge, there is no difference in the number of genetic heritable conditions found in Black athletes compared to white athletes. I think the biggest thing we can do is try to make sure that if we’re going to do screening, that we screen everyone and we do it in equitable fashion. And also, that we have good plans in place that if these events occur that we are able to respond to them promptly. Ongoing research is needed to understand some of these differences we’re finding in this population,” he said.

“The big surprise is that the sudden cardiac death rate has decreased over the last 20 years. We hypothesize that’s likely due to more athletes surviving the cardiac arrest event, such as Bronny James,” Petek explained. “Some of this may be attributed to great, prompt CPR that is being done by bystanders, more defibrillators and AEDs in the area, and bystanders using AEDs, and finally, teams and organizations having an emergency action plan – so, having a plan that is rehearsed regularly.”

The lead researcher furthered that another possible reason behind the decrease is more screenings for cardiac diseases.

“For forever, we recommended that all athletes undergo a history and physical exam, really trying realistic questions if they’re having any symptoms of cardiovascular disease, if they have any family history, or a physical exam to see if they have a murmur, do they have any heart abnormalities we can catch?” he said.

“More recently, there have been recommendations for consideration of adding an ECG or heart tracing for athletes prior to participation,” Petek said. “If an ECG is included as part of the screening process, it’s really important that — athletes are much different than other populations; we see differences in the heart tracings — so, whoever is interpreting the ECG has training in this.”

According to Petek, the best thing to help young athletes is to have widespread CPR training not only in sports facilities but also throughout communities, noting, “if you’re playing basketball in a park, we want to make sure that others around you know CPR.”

He also says it’s important to have AEDs and defibrillators available within one to three minutes of sporting venues and make sure they’re not locked in an office or the trainer’s room, so they can be accessed quickly.

“We’re just really dedicated to trying to advance research in this area. I think with a lot of recent public cardiac events with Bronny James, and Damar Hamlin, and some very sad cases, it’s really important that we all work together and we all try to contribute to research, we continue education for those interested in sports cardiology and making sure that people have the training to take care of these athletes,” Petek said.

He furthered, “and then finally, that we open up more centers so more sports cardiology dedicated centers where we can really focus in on the care of the athlete and think about somebody as an individual — from your college athlete, from professional athlete, to your weekend warrior that wants to go run a marathon for the first time in their older years — we need to make sure that we’re taking the best care of them and we’re learning how to do that in the process.”