Sickle Cell Linked to Sudden Deaths in Male Black Athletes
A recent study confirms 25-year-old research that demonstrated a link between sickle cell trait and sudden cardiac death among young, athletic African-American males. Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease in which oxygen-bearing red blood cells form an abnormal sickle or crescent shape. The sickle-shaped cells are fragile, unlike healthy disc-shaped cells, and can get stuck easily in small blood vessels or even break into pieces. Consequently, this can alter healthy blood flow and delivery of oxygen. Sickle cell disease is much more common in people who are of African and Mediterranean descent. This trait is also seen in people from South America and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East.1
For the past 23 years the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation has kept a registry of sudden death incidences in athletes. Of the 2,462 athletes listed, there were 23 who died of sudden cardiac death. Of those 23 athletes, 21 were male, and all were African Americans. Most of the deaths occurred during football conditioning drills at a time early in the season, and an in environment where athletes were exposed to high temperatures. The research from the recent study concludes that the sickle cell trait can in fact be correlated with unpredictable sudden collapse death in African American male football players.2
"The registry was initially started by Dr. Maron to help the medical community understand why any athlete would collapse on a field," explained the study's lead author Kevin M. Harris, MD, co-director of the Acute Aortic Dissection Program and director of the echocardiography laboratory at the Minneapolis Heart Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. "We decided to assess the connection between the sickle cell trait and sudden death within our large registry," Harris continued. "As a result, we have developed the first sizable series of competitive athletes in whom sickle cell trait was associated with otherwise unexplained sudden, unexpected collapse and death."3
The results of this study may help those who may have the sickle cell trait be more cautious and aware of the risks involved. All African Americans are tested at birth, so they know early on whether they possess the trait. Since sickle cell anemia affects about eight-percent of African Americans, it is imperative everyone understands the risks involved and takes the necessary precautions to avoid tragedies such as sudden death on the playing field.4
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.