The recent collapse of Damar Hamlin during a football game has brought the topic of sports-related cardiac arrest back into the spotlight. This has many people wondering if this is something that can happen to someone much older. Luckily, a new study brings reassuring news: it’s rare for older adults to experience sudden cardiac arrest during exercise, and those who do tend to have fewer health issues compared to those who experience this medical emergency outside of exercise.
What is cardiac arrest?
Cardiac arrest refers to a sudden and unexpected loss of heart function as per the American Heart Association It is caused by an electrical issue in the heart that disrupts its normal heartbeat. As a result, the heart is unable to pump blood to the brain, lungs, and other vital organs, leading to a loss of consciousness and no pulse. Without immediate treatment, death can occur within a matter of minutes.
Exercise and Heart Health
Exercise is known to be one of the healthiest habits for the heart, but a new study from Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles has found that exercise can also trigger an irregular heart rhythm that leads to sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when an electrical malfunction in the heart causes it to stop beating, and most people die within minutes. Although rates of sudden cardiac arrest have increased among older adults in recent years, the study found that “the annual incidence of sports-related sudden cardiac arrest among older adults is extremely rare.”
The study was conducted by analyzing cases of sudden cardiac arrest in people aged 65 and older in Portland, Ore., and Ventura County, Calif. The data used came from two ongoing studies: the Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study and the Ventura Prediction of Sudden Death in Multi-ethnic Communities study. The research excluded cases where resuscitation was not attempted or where cardiac arrest occurred while in the hospital.
Out of over 4,000 cases studied, only 77 (1.9%) happened during or following exercise, which included activities such as cycling, running, playing golf or tennis, or working out at the gym. About 91% of the cardiac arrests were in men. Medical records were available for 47 people with sports-related cardiac arrest and over 3,100 people with cardiac arrest not related to sports.
The findings showed that those who experienced sudden cardiac arrest during or after exercise had fewer heart risk factors or other health issues compared to those who experienced a cardiac arrest not related to exercise. Additionally, sports-related cardiac arrests were four times more likely to occur in a public location, such as a gym, which is one reason why they were also four times more likely to survive.
Encouraging Older Adults to Stay Active
The study concludes that the health benefits of sports activity likely outweigh the risk of associated sudden cardiac arrest in seniors. Dr. Sumeet Chugh, the senior study author and director of the Heart Rhythm Center in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai, stated that older people who regularly participate in sports should continue to do so. However, those who develop new symptoms should consult their physician, and those who want to start exercising should do so only after consulting their physician and obtaining an exercise prescription.
There have been several studies in the past that clearly signify the importance of strength training for better health and longevity. Also, a healthy and active lifestyle has been proven to ward off dementia.
The study found that sports-related cardiac arrest is rare in older adults, and those who experience it tend to have fewer health issues compared to those who experience this medical emergency outside of exercise. The findings encourage older adults to continue to participate in sports, as the health benefits are likely to outweigh the risk of associated sudden cardiac arrest. However, it is important to consult with a physician and obtain an exercise prescription before starting any new physical activity.
Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant.
He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves.
Rahul has a master’s degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.