Athletes are physically fit and are often an epitome of good health but a new study has revealed that even the world's best athletes may have potentially deadly heart defects.

In a new study set to be presented at the meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Lisbon, Portugal on Friday, Paulo Emilio Adami, from the Italian Olympic Committee, and colleagues looked at the data of over 2,300 elite athletes who went through heart health assessments as part of their screening to join in the Winter and Summer Olympic Games.

The researchers found that 7 percent, or 171, of these athletes had some form of electrophysiological or structural heart abnormality.

Six of the athletes were even found to have heart defect that was considered as potentially fatal, which prevented them to compete in the games. Another 24 athletes were suspended temporarily albeit they were eventually allowed to compete but under close medical surveillance.

Detected abnormalities included coronary heart disease and cardiomyopathies with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy known to be among the leading causes of sudden cardiac death.

Adami said that it comes as a surprise that Olympic athletes, who are seen as among the healthiest, have such abnormalities and regardless of these abnormalities, were still able to reach high competitive levels. He added that the condition had gone unrecognized in most cases because the previous screenings that the athletes have gone through were not as extensive.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) says that heart abnormalities are more prevalent in athletes compared with the general population. It is suggested that extensive exercise may strain the heart muscles and cause them to enlarge.

The researcher said that the study provides evidence that more accurate evaluation is needed by elite athletes given what their cardiovascular system goes through during those long hours of training and competing. He added that those who want to be involved in competitive sports need to undergo medical evaluation and that elite athletes should not be taken for granted because they are in good health.

Adami said that the findings of the study show that more accurate assessment is needed for professional athletes compared with the members of the general population considering the stress and intensity imposed on their cardiovascular system because of the long hours they spend for training and competition.

"We suggest that our model of screening is applied to all elite athletes, regardless of the sport they practice," Adami said.

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