Can Sudden Cardiac Death of the Young be Prevented?

Posted on by Debra Duquette, MS, CGC, Genomics Coordinator & Beth Anderson, MPH, Genomics Epidemiologist, Michigan Department of Community Health

A Michigan Story on Lessons Learned and Action Steps to Take

The winter months have arrived and with them comes a certain madness, specifically March Madness.  On March 12, 2012 the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament will commence.  Most of the focus will be on cheering for the teams we picked to win our brackets; however, as Michigan learned last year, this isn’t the only thing we need to focus on.

kids playing basketballOn March 3, 2011, with less than 30 seconds left in overtime in Fennville High School’s final regular season men’s basketball game, a winning layup was scored that brought Fennville’s team an undefeated record.  With district playoffs in Fennville’s future, the gymnasium was full of celebration.  Within moments, the crowd went silent as their star player collapsed to the ground.  Wes Leonard, the player who had scored the winning basket moments before was now unconscious.  Over 2,000 fans stood stunned, waiting for paramedics to arrive.  Although an AED was present at the school, it was not charged and CPR was not performed because people did not think that cardiac arrest could be at fault in someone so young.  Wes was later declared dead at a local hospital and the autopsy showed that he died of cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.

Sudden deaths of young athletes bring attention to an important public health problem known as sudden cardiac death of the young (SCDY), which occurs in non-athletes, too.  On average, an estimated 66 athletes die suddenly of cardiac cause each year in the United States.   Each year in Michigan alone, approximately 300 people aged 1-39 years die suddenly of a cardiac cause. Importantly, SCDY is known to have a strong hereditary component in many cases.

The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) Genomics Program, with support from CDC’s Office of Public Health Genomics, has been working since 2005 with a motivated group of experts and advocates to assess the impact of SCDY and identify action steps for prevention. Multiple data sources have been used to gather information about the burden, impact and causes of SCDY in Michigan.


person running with EKG graph

An action step for pre-participation sports screening was to “make formal recommendations to the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) to revise [the] sports participation screening and physical form”.  MDCH led a work group with more than 55 partners to recommend a new form that included personal history, family history, and physical exam questions on SCDY risk factors to the athletic association in 2009 and 2010.

The form includes two new sections.  The first is called “Heart Health Questions About You” and includes questions on pressure or tightness in the chest, irregular heartbeats, lightheadedness, unexplained seizures and more.  The second section is called “Heart Health Questions About Your Family” and includes questions on family history of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, long QT, heart problems, pacemaker, unexplained fainting, early death from a cardiac cause, and more.

The MHSAA approved these recommendations in 2010 and implemented use of the form for the 2011-12 academic year, when approximately 400,000 of these forms were distributed., and the implementation of this action step has resulted in thousands of parents being asked about family history of SCDY, as well as assessing the student athlete’s personal history of cardiac symptoms.

The new form is aligned with the 2010 American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Sports Medicine and others’ recommended Preparticipation History and Physical Form, and with the 2007 American Heart Association 12-point screening protocol.

SCDY is a grave public health concern.  It is the hope of MDCH and its partners that the work that is being done will help prevent a future “Wes Leonard Story”.  For more information about SCDY and Michigan’s prevention efforts, please visit:

Posted on by Debra Duquette, MS, CGC, Genomics Coordinator & Beth Anderson, MPH, Genomics Epidemiologist, Michigan Department of Community HealthTags , , , , , ,

5 comments on “Can Sudden Cardiac Death of the Young be Prevented?”

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    It’s ironic that this article should appear on the day after Andrew Breitbart dropped dead of presumed cardiac disease.

    As I’ve been learning in Public Health; it’s sad so many illnesses, conditions, etc. ARE preventable. We can’t move fast enough to try to prevent sudden cardiac arrests in young people. Anything would be a good start. But, it is a very sad comment that the AED wasn’t charged, and no one responded with CPR, that takes a few seconds to assess.

    Great article. I saw a longer non-technical version in Sport Illustrated. I have a friend who lost his son, the same picture of health, to a similar condition. Very good in getting the word out.

    I would like to say thank you to the CDC and Michigan Department of Community Health for starting to track these deaths from Sudden Cardiac Arrest and letting us know what we can do to create a different outcome than the one Wesley received. The lack of knowledge for us as parents will be a continuous burden that we will carry for the rest of our lives, but one that we do not want any other parent to go through. Please let his life and others that have gone before and after him make a positive difference for others. With gratitude, Jocelyn Leonard

    I would like to say this is great information about health as there seems to be a lack of healthy life style and bad eating habits.

    I will certainly recommend that my colleagues have a look here- thanks for the great site.



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