According to statistics, it happens every three or four days in the United States—a young athlete is passing a basketball to a teammate or running drills on the football field, and suddenly he falls down, unconscious.

Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is a loss of heart function, breathing and consciousness, which, if not treated immediately, typically results in death. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute reports that about 250,000 to 450,000 Americans experience SCA each year.

Though the illness can affect anyone, it particularly affects African Americans, who experience many SCA risk factors, such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol. Smoking can also increase your risk of having coronary artery disease, the main risk factor for sudden cardiac arrest.
The average age of young athletes who suffer from SCA is 17.5; 90 percent are male, and many are black. Kevin Thomas, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center and a cardiac electrophysiologist, says there may be a genetic link.  He also says that sports played most by African Americans, such as basketball and football, pose a high SCA risk.

A new awareness campaign, Close the Gap, hopes to shed light on SCA in young athletes and on a broad range of issues related to cardiovascular health and heart disease disparities. Sponsored by medical device manufacturing company Boston Scientifics’ Cardiac Rhythm Management division, the Association of Black Cardiologists, the Black Coaches and Administrators organization and other heart health and community groups, the national initiative aims to educate individuals about how to take charge of their medical treatment and protect their hearts.

“We need to encourage screening, and it’s got to start early,” says Thomas. “These kids are not only training during the year—they’re competing in sports year round. That likely puts more stress on the body than anyone can understand, and is probably one of the things that lends itself to sudden cardiac arrest.”

Close the Gap offers these questions to help you and your physician determine if the young athlete in your life may be at risk for SCA:

  • Has he or she ever passed out when startled, during exercise or when experiencing an intense emotion?
  • Has your child fainted or passed out after exercise or had extreme fatigue associated with exercise?
  • Has your child ever had unusual or extreme shortness of breath during exercise? Or discomfort, pain or pressure in the chest during exercise?
  • Has your child ever been diagnosed with an unexplained seizure disorder?
  • Have there been any unexpected, unexplained deaths before age 50 in the child’s family? (Includes sudden infant death syndrome, car accident, drowning, others.)
  • Has anyone in your child’s family died of a heart problem before age 50?
  • Does anyone in the child’s family have unexplained fainting or seizures?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may want to see a heart specialist. To learn more about the Close the Gap campaign, visit and click on “young athletes.” And remember: as the website says, the information offered is not a substitute for actual medical care.