In late July, one of the most popular college athletes, Bronny James, eldest son to NBA star Lebron James, suffered cardiac arrest during a basketball practice session. The incoming USC freshman basketball guard was rushed to an area hospital and treated in an intensive care unit until later being stabilized.
James was discharged days later and has since been reported to have resumed regular activity, but the medical incident shines a light on the seemingly alarming growth in young athletes suffering from a cardiac episode.
According to a study earlier this year by the Mayo Clinic Health System, sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in youth athletes.
About 1 or 2 in every 100,000 young athletes experience sudden cardiac arrest annually, according to The Sports Institute. Males are at a greater risk than females, and the Black community stands at an even greater risk.
“Heart disease is not only by the bad habits we do,” said Dr. Chadi Alraies, Medical Director of Cardiac Catheterization DMC Heart Hospital. “For sure if we smoke, eat fatty food, and junk food, that’s what causes heart disease, but there are some with a genetic disposition that can affect negatively on an athlete’s heart as well.”
Dr. Alraies points to a number of examples and studies that highlight the reality of some people who are very fit and in a competitive sport who can experience a short circuit in the heart. It puts the heart in a completely different rhythm, sometimes requiring CPR and resuscitation measures and sometimes ending in a lethal outcome.
“I think that with screening and new tools that we have, we’re discovering these things more often, but how prevalent or how often these episodes happen has been going for some time,” Dr. Alraies explains.
“For the last 20 years, we started to look for these heart conditions in athletics who are exercising and competing, then it’s becoming more prevalent, it’s happening more on camera. I think as we are putting more attention to it and broadcasting it more, mothers and fathers of athletic kids can screen and ask for screening as a routine process.”
Oftentimes, fans are inspired to take up the importance of their health following incidents of a celebrity or after their favorite star has encountered a notable health scare.
However, in a general sense, access to basic healthcare can be tough for many families, particularly in urban communities.
“The facts are, the Detroit community is underserved, and access to healthcare is not as available,” Dr. Alraies says. “Access sites (are scarce) for patients for even a checkup, primary care, or family doctor to make sure a patients don’t have heart disease in the family.”
Public knowledge about the disease and risk factors is also important, but Dr. Alraies believes more needs to be done to be proactive on public information outside of February’s heart month.
“Screening is key here. Certain things have to be checked and done from a physician standpoint, and also more (in the area of) recommendations from the athletic standpoint. From our standpoint, we usually do the basic stuff which is called an EKG, and in certain situations we order an ultrasound of the heart where we are looking for heart activity such as heart valve, heart squeezing, and if there’s any disturbance in the functioning of the heart,” he said.
A third step would take doctors through the process of looking at conducting a cardiac MRI to study if there’s anything physicians must look at even deeper.
Dr. Alraies also finds the way in which athletes are trained must be considered. Things like weather conditions, dietary practices, and hydration matter a lot when it comes to preventative measures.
“Dehydration and electrolytes, if they are low, can be underestimated and undiagnosed. I always encourage hydration, not just with water, but with electrolytes. Making sure that potassium levels are where they should be which is important for sport teams to check.”
From James’ health incident, the public and fans alike can witness from afar that even someone with good fitness guided by a father with some of the best athletic experience, wealth, health access, and resources can still be vulnerable to an unfortunate heart emergency.
“The people who have access, the people attention to any heart condition that happen to a very competitive person still can get heart disease, and yet for someone who is hard working in the factory or teacher or barber and it not granted that access to health care and risk from the diets we eat, …the lifestyle they should seek, then this will definitely become a big problem,” Dr. Alraies said.
“I hope soon we’re able to close that gap between access to health care and patient connection to heart disease and stroke.”