Athletes are often presumed to be physically healthy, which is why it always comes as a surprise when young athletes suddenly die. Findings of a new study, however, suggest that despite looking fit, many of the young athletes who had untimely deaths already had an underlying heart problem.

In a new study published in The American Journal of Medicine, researchers have found that about a third of sudden cardiac deaths among athletes were because of a genetic heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

The condition occurs when the walls of the ventricles become abnormally thick obstructing the heart's performance.

Although some individuals with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy exhibit severe symptoms and complications such as shortness of breath, inability to exercise or abnormal heart rhythm, there are those who do not show any signs or symptoms at all, and the disease does not appear to affect their lives.

For these individuals, the condition may go unnoticed for a long time and those that are most at risk are athletes as the physical effort that they are exposed to on a regular basis can weaken their heart, which can lead to sudden cardiac arrest.

In the study, researchers investigated the causes of sudden death in competitive athletes by using data from the U.S. National Registry of Sudden Death in Athletes covering the years between 1980 and 2011.

Of the 2,400 deaths that occurred in young athletes between 13 and 25 years old who were engaged in 29 different sports, the researchers found that more than 840 had cardiovascular diagnoses, which were confirmed at autopsy.

Male athletes tend to die from sudden cardiac event with 6.5 times higher risk than women. Basketball players who were African-American or members of minority groups have a threefold risk of dying from sudden death.

The rate of cardiovascular death among African-Americans and those who belong to other minority groups were also found to be five times higher than those of whites.

The researchers likewise discovered that more than a third of the deaths were caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which was responsible for almost 40 percent of sudden deaths among male athletes.

Of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy cases, more than half occurred in minority males, albeit only 1 percent in minority females.

[H]ypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in male athletes and is an under-appreciated cause of sudden death in male African-American and minority athletes," said study author Barry Maron of the Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

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