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A New, Uncontrollable Epidemic

Aschille Clarke-Mendes, Contributor

Piermario Morosini

On Saturday April 14 the football world was shocked by the death of Serie B Italian midfielder Piermario Morosini, who died after suffering a heart attack during the first half of the match between Pescara and Livorno. The 25-year-old passed away less than a month after English Premier League player Fabrice Muamba collapsed, having suffered cardiac arrest during an FA Cup match between Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur. Muamba’s heart stopped for 78 minutes as doctors struggled to keep him alive at the stadium and then later at the London Chest Hospital. Since then, the Bolton midfielder has made a remarkable recovery.

After car accidents, heart-related ailments,are the leading cause of death for active sportsmen.  As it turns out, deaths during a match have been progressively increasing in number. The 2000s saw 31 deaths recorded; the 90s, 10; and the 80s, four. We’ve had 10 deaths since 2010. Granted, data-collection may have improved over the years. But regardless, the numbers are staggering; the only other sports with similar statistics are martial arts.

What causes so many fit sportsmen to die so suddenly while playing? Presumably, this involves solution convergence of factors. It could have something to with mild heart disorders being more common than we would assume. These would then be exacerbated while running and performing other high levels of cardiovascular activity.

Professional football players typically run about 8km per match, on average, playing as much as three matches a week. The strenuous training schedules call for vigorous stamina exercises. But if overexertion is the problem, why doesn’t this phenomenon ring true for athletic running?  The lucrative business of the professional leagues calls for players to act like machines, providing results week in and week out.

The stress put on players in the modern age of the sport have proven a little known fact in medical circles: the existence of a recognizable condition – sudden death of elite athletes in their prime. Should these phenomena be classified as “natural cause”? Heart attacks are attributed to unhealthy lifestyles and old age. Cardiac arrest, however, can occur in young healthy people if their heart’s rhythm fluctuates dangerously and is unable to pump blood around the body efficiently.

The pressures and anxieties involved in a tightly-decided sports match are tangible even for the crowds of die-hard fans. The British Medical Journal highlighted a study in which hospital admissions were counted before, during, and after the 1998 World Cup match between England and Argentina. A penalty shootout ended in England’s elimination from the World Cup; in the immediate days following the match there was a 25 per cent increase in heart attacks suffered by English nationals. Much of the match’s audience – a whopping 24 million people – reported that they just couldn’t bear the stress and suspense of the penalty shootouts. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the attacks were more common among men than women. The findings provide substantial evidence to uphold the experimenter’s theory of emotional upset triggering heart attacks.

However, stamina and high cardiovascular levels are prerequisites for basketball, tennis and many other sports which involve matches decided on a knife’s edge. Why the phenomenon is not as common to these sports is puzzling.  Despite that incongruence, fatal scenarios like Morosini’s are tragedies and more effort should be put into discovering their root cause.


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