Are you doing all you can for your young athlete's heart?
Thursday, 29 March 2012
A string of teen deaths this year has highlighted the need for awareness of heart conditions, regular screening, and an understanding that cardiac problems do not just affect older people or the middle-aged.
Luke Chapman, 15, died after collapsing on the rugby pitch at school in Kidderminster, and his was the third sport-related death of a school pupil in a month. Days earlier, 12-year-old Leonie Nice died after being hit in the chest with a rugby ball at her school in Essex.
Two weeks before, Kyle Rees, 16, of Portchester School, Bournemouth, died after being hit by a cricket ball.
These tragedies may have left many parents wondering if they were doing all they could to look after their young athletes, and whether these deaths were preventable. In young athletes, more than half of sudden deaths are due to underlying heart disease, says a study published in the journal Circulation.
Commotio cordis happens after a direct blow during the "wrong" moment in the heart's cycle. Of course, it is more common in contact sports. The athlete stops breathing and passes out; they may turn blue and sometimes there is no heartbeat. Prompt action can literally make the difference between life and death.
Another potential issue is Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), a dangerous enlargement of the heart muscle. Around one in 500 people have this genetic condition, but many may not be aware of it, since it often goes undiagnosed.
But the good news is there are things you can do to help protect your child from the causes of sudden cardiac deaths, whether or not they play sports competitively.
Familiarise yourself with the warning signs. If your child has ever fainted, complained of a racing heart, or shortness of breath when exercising, tell your GP. In many cases if a child is experiencing these kinds of symptoms, an electrocardiogram test reading the heart's electrical activity should be done to eliminate cardiac issues.
Since many cardiac conditions are genetic, tell your doctor if there have been any unexplained cardiac deaths in a sibling or other family member under the age of 50. Keep an eye on any symptoms you experience yourself. Do you regularly feel light-headed, or tire easily when exercising? If so, tell your GP.
If you have HCM, there's a strong chance that your child will have inherited it. However, if the condition is identified in you, your child can be tested before they display any symptoms.
When watching your child on the sports field, do so with a critical eye. It can be easy to ignore the signs of fatigue, especially because you inevitably want your child to succeed. And your son or daughter may not always tell you how they are really feeling, in case you stop them playing.
Equally, learn about heart murmurs in children, which are extremely common. While most of these disappear of their own accord and are harmless (often caused by fever, anaemia or simply having a thin chest wall and a straight back), some heart murmurs can indicate problems from a narrow valve or artery to a leaking valve or a hole in the heart.
In terms of general heart health, set a good example yourself by adopting the right diet for a healthy heart, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, and very limited foods and drinks which are laden with fat or sugar. You'll also need to consume some milk and dairy products, along with some non-dairy protein sources, such as meat, fish, eggs or beans.
At the same time, lead the way for your children by following government guidelines on exercise. These state that up to their mid-sixties, adults should try to be active daily and complete a weekly minimum of 150 minutes (or two and a half hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as cycling or fast walking, and muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days a week which work all the major muscle groups.
Finally, educate yourself and your child's sports team or club. Early CPR resuscitation after sudden cardiac arrest can boost survival chances by a tenth, and early defibrillation with an automated external defibrillator (AED), offering an electric shock to restart the heart, raises survival chances by a staggering three quarters. Learn what equipment the club has, and who is trained in CPR.
While sudden cardiac events are undoubtedly scary, they are still rare, which is why the more dramatic cases attract the headlines. Understanding the risks, symptoms and precautions can give you peace of mind before your young athletic star runs on to the pitch.
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