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Knowing Family Health History Could Save a Young Life

Knowing Family Health History Could Save a Young Life

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Dr. Kim Mulvihill ReportingThe sudden death of a young athlete can cause great concern among parents, coaches, and teammates. Some may ask about the need for more comprehensive screening before children are allowed to compete. Dr. Kim Mulvihill says the first thing parents need to know is that sudden cardiac death among kids is very rare.

Celtics star Reggie Lewis, Washington Sophomore Kayla Burt, and Berkeley high school student Nic Rotolo all had cardiac conditions. All died except for Burt. Her teammates saved her life with CPR.

Kayla Burt, University of Washington: “They are my sisters for life and I couldn’t ask for anything more, ever.”

Just recently, nine-year-old Ariana Williams also died from a cardiac condition. The vast majority of young athletes who suddenly die, die from a heart problem.

Amy Sehnert, M.D., UCSF Pediatric Cardiology: “A third of the time, sudden athlete deaths are due to cardiomyopathy, 80 percent which are genetic.”

Pediatric cardiologist Amy Sehnert of UCSF says in addition to cardiomyopathy, Marfan Syndrome and long QT Syndrome can also cause sudden death. The majority of these cases are genetic.

With roughly five million children and teenagers playing sports, these tragedies are extremely rare -- 10 to 13 cases a year are reported in the US each year.

But the cost of screening all young athletes for such rare heart problems would be prohibitively expensive. It would cost four million dollars and require two hundred thousand echocardiograms - just to find one case of cardiomyopathy. However, there is simpler way:

Amy Sehnert, M.D.: "Just taking a family history for those diseases I've mentioned is the best way to capture the group that's highest at risk.”

Knowing your family history and telling a doctor is key. The doctor can also examine a child for a cardiac murmur. These two steps may lead to a referral to a pediatric cardiologist. Parents also need to examine their kids.

Amy Sehnert, M.D.: "Just paying attention to how the kid looks out there and reminding them if they have any symptoms that feel funny.”

Many kids may not tell you the truth if they're having symptoms because they don't want to miss out, so be sure to ask them and watch them.

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