As you watch the Winter Olympics on KCBD this week, you would naturally assume these are the greatest and the healthiest athletes in the world.
But Italian researchers studied the hearts of Olympic athletes in 2009 and determined that just 85 percent were pristine. Among the rest, they found mild abnormalities that would still allow the athletes to compete. But in half of one percent of those super athletes, they found a defect in the heart that was potentially alarming.
So how do we know if our little athletes are safe?
I asked Dr. Scott Shurmur, a Cardiologist and Texas Tech Physician. He says there is one thing parents should take seriously. Fainting is a clue.
He explains, "Not fainting with dehydration, or pain or emotional upset, but fainting with top level participation, when your blood pressure and heart rate should be high, that means there's something wrong with getting blood to the rest of the body. Fainting during intense competition is important."
Dr. Shurmur says it's really tough to understand why some defects manifest themselves later in life.
But, he says if that does happen, it's likely going to be in the mid 30s toward the end of an athlete's career when the problem seems to surface.
Since that Italian study, he says, there has been extensive aggressive screening to find heart defects in athletes.
He says some legislators have been trying to do the same thing here at home.
"There have been bills in the legislature in Texas attempting to mandate at least EKG screening of athletes, but that can be a Pandora's box to an extent."
The problem, he says, is that an EKG screening could reveal 'innocent' abnormalities that might keep an athlete from playing unnecessarily.
His advice to parents is to make sure kids have a good physical exam, a legitimate one before participation.
Also, he says, be aware of family history. If there is someone in your family tree who suffered premature sudden cardiac death, or if there is someone in the family with a story about fainting, that's a clue that you need further testing.
He does reassure parents that heart defects are rare.
He says, "Of all athletes screened, the chance of finding a potentially lethal cardiac defect is less than one percent. So at least that should make you sleep a little better at night."
The Winter Olympics of 2018 will be carried exclusively on NBC.
Opening ceremonies begin Friday, Feb. 9, but some competition begins earlier on Thursday evening, Feb. 8. Closing ceremonies will Sunday, Feb. 25.
You can see it all on KCBD NewsChannel 11.
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