Monday, February 21, 2011

Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD)

Three people I know have died, suddenly, of a heart attack. They were all young and in reasonable health - one was even extremely fit and died during a training session with the Oxford rowing team back in 1991. When a fit, young person is struck down in the prime of their life it is just as much of a tragedy as any potentially preventable death but it has an even bigger impact because we tend to think that heart problems are the territory of obese heavy smokers. When Andrés Iniesta scored the World Cup winning goal for Spain, he took of his shirt to reveal his vest below, on which was written "Dani Jarque, siempre con nosotros" (Dani Jarque, always with us)

Dani Jarque was a professional footballer who died of a heart attack in 2009, aged just 26. Even I had heard of this tragic death when it happened and I have a positive disinterest in football. I have also read the case of a Spanish Marathon runner - whose name escapes me - who had run 13 Marathons in less than 3 hours; the 14th was literally the death of him.

It is getting to the point that people are starting to think that running Marathons or Ironmans is something bad for you or even lethal. According to one article I found on the internet, the mortality rate over the last 20 years of the London Marathon is 1 in 67,414. On the other hand, according to another (random) article I found, the incidence of Sudden Cardiac Death in the general population is about 582 / 249,146 or roughly 1 in 428! I know that I am not being very scientific here but that is just because I don't really have time to do a proper study. Nevertheless the point is that we are much more sensitive to cases of SCD amongst athletes because of the media, our preconceptions of the "typical" heart attack sufferer and the fact that - and this is the clincher, I think - they often die in the middle of a race or competition rather than quietly at home. Who can forget when Tommy Cooper died on stage and made it look like it was part of his act? I particularly remember it because it was the first (and last) time I ever saw him on TV.

Many people can have a dormant heart condition that only becomes significant when they are subjected to a particular stress, be it running a Marathon or getting upset with their boss. One good thing about running Marathons is that you are more likely to have had a ECG or Electro Cardiogram done while running to exhaustion on a treadmill. I last did this 3 and a half years ago when I abruptly stopped smoking and started running again. On Wednesday I will do another ECG as well as an Eco Cardiogram (where they can actually see your heart beating and check for deformities, some of which can escape an ECG). I'm lucky that I can do these tests at work for free - my workplace has a joint venture with Valentín Fuster, who is a famous Spanish heart surgeon, which gives us employees access to state-of-the-art tests and gives him access to thousands of willing guinea pigs. Even if the tests were not free, I would be prepared to pay to do them - its difficult to put a price on hopefully preventing something both utterly devastating and very improbable - but certainly I value it more highly than my ticket to run the Ironman in Brazil. I have not even thought how I might feel or what I might do if they discovered something - I'll cross that bridge when, and if, I ever get to it.

If I manage to achieve anything with this blog and the money I am trying to raise for the British Heart Foundation, it would be to break down this bipolar perception we have of Sudden Cardiac Death - of overeaters and overexercisers - when, in fact, this is a very serious issue that could effect each and every one of us. Sponsoring research can have very tangible results such as improving detection rates, prevention, surgical intervention. So please, if you have found this blog at all interesting or entertaining or even if you would like to pay me to shut up, please click on the Just Giving logo at the top right of this page. And also think about getting your own heart checked up even if you feel fit as a fiddle. The fact is we probably have less doubts about taking our car in for an MOT checkup than we do for getting our motor - the heart - a certificate of good health.

POSTDATA: I did the electro and eco cardiograms yesterday and got the results back - I am officially OK to do the Ironman. Now my chest is all itchy where they shaved me pie bald so that the electrodes could have a good connection. I did my five hours training just beforehand, so I got to exhaustion on the treadmill quite quickly. Its wonderful all this science and technology to measure all kinds of clever things to do with the heart but, what surprises me is, they only test you up to 85% of your "maximum heart rate" as given by the very unsophisticated formula of 220 less your age. In my case, I have the maximum heart rate of a 29 year old, hahaha. No, really, the formula is a load of crap and it means that we only did a cardiogram up to a pulse rate lower than I will be clocking at in the Marathon at the end of the Ironmaneco as I have a friend whose heart problem went undetected by the ECG but was spotted in an eco. This potentially saved his life (and he was still able to become an Ironman).

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