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Close the Gap health initiative targets young athletes who die from cardiac arrest

The numbers are startling. Every three or four days, a competitive young athlete dies without warning from sudden cardiac arrest.

The most common cause is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a disease that causes the heart muscle to thicken. According to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 52 percent of athletes who die of HCM are black, and 90 percent of them are male. Victims average 17.5 years of age.

But here’s the encouraging news: With proper screening and cardiac testing, sudden cardiac deaths can be reduced by 89 percent, according to a long-term study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That’s why representatives of Close the Gap, a national initiative sponsored by Boston Scientific, will be on hand at the Minnesota-Purdue men’s basketball game tonight.  The initiative has a broader purpose, reducing disparities in cardiovascular care for American women, blacks and Latinos.

“Despite a similar prevalence, women and people of color are treated at a lesser rate for heart disease than Caucasian men,” said Dr. Kevin Thomas, a cardiologist based in Durham, N.C. who sits on the initiative’s steering committee. “With Close the Gap, we are helping everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, have access to the highest quality cardiovascular care.”

For Dr. Pierce Vatterott of the St. Paul Heart Clinic, a cardiologist who supports the initiative, screening young athletes is a significant part of the larger issue. Certain at-risk people who need further testing never get it.

“I’m sure at least part of it has to do with insurance coverage,” he said. “But people of color, even if they have enough insurance coverage, they still don’t get worked up.”

Screening athletes, he said, can be as simple as asking the right questions on a medical form for a high school sports physical. The Minnesota State High School League already does this. The 52 questions in its medical history section include:

• Have you ever passed out or nearly passed out during exercise?

• Have you ever had discomfort, pain, tightness or pressure in your chest during exercise?

• Has any family member or relative died of a heart problem or of sudden death before the age of 50?

But Vatterott said the American Heart Association believes 40 percent of states don’t screen their high school athletes adequately. And though Vatterott likes the Minnesota League’s approach, he wishes all state associations required parents to at least help answer the questions.

“You don’t want the kid to fill it out,” he said. “You don’t know how your second cousin Louie died. The kid just wants to play sports, and he may see this as a hurdle to play sports.”

Athletes aren’t the only at-risk people targeted by the initiative. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, and the No. 2 cause in Minnesota, Vatterott said. Survey results from the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control report disturbing numbers from Minnesota adults. Eighteen percent smoke, 61 percent are overweight, and 14 percent haven’t exercised in 30 days. 

“We are helping people understand the risk factors for heart disease, and encouraging them to talk with a physician to develop a plan to lower their overall risk,” Vatterott said.

The initiative has enlisted a diverse range of groups for support, from Black Coaches & Administrators — hence, Gophers Coach Tubby Smith’s interest — to the National Coalition of Pastors’ Spouses.

Look for the information table at Williams Arena tonight. To learn more, go here or here.

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