Head trauma and head injury have been a well-known problem in the NFL but the problems of players in basketball have largely escaped the spotlight. The new study conducted in New York-Presbyterian and Columbia University shows that heart disease and heart attack is a very real risk for these players.
It's well documented how those who play in the NFL are more prone to brain injuries considering the constant risk of head collision, but new research shows that one of America's other favorite sports presents a considerable risk to its players as well. Conducted in tandem with New York-Presbyterian and Columbia University, the study covered 519 NBA players and draft prospects and found that at least 15% of players may have heart problems.
The study, which was published in the Journal of American Medical Association, covered every player in the league in 2014 and over the course of two years, NBA-affiliated physicians collected electrocardiograph (ECG) and stress echocardiogram data to form a picture on how well a player's heart was functioning, as well as to check abnormalities in shape and size.
Because these parameters are to be differently judged for a normal person and a high-level athlete, the test results were assessed against three sets of currently established athlete-specific criteria for supposedly 'normal' hearts. The three criteria are referred to as 'Seattle,' 'refined,' and 'international,' and have different cut-offs for what constitutes an abnormal test result.
Even after using the revised assessment criteria, 81 athletes were found to suffer from heart abnormalities. However, the rate of false positives would have much higher had previous standards been used; 108 using 2014 guidelines and 131 using 2012 guidelines. But despite the progress, it was noted in the editorial commentary that even the new guidelines did not take black athletes into account and that they still do not know how to identify those, especially at risk.
The study's authors wrote: "Despite the improved specificity of the international recommendations over previous athlete-specific ECG criteria, abnormal ECG classification rates remain high in NBA athletes."
Out of the 519 players assessed, 78.8% were African-American and the results were skewed considerably against their favor; especially if the player in question was older and in the latter half of their careers: 31-year-old 6'8 LeBron James, 29-year-old 7' Kevin Durant, and 28-year-old 6'5 James Harden all fit the bill.
Dr. David Engel, the lead author of the study admitted that 'there were significant differences in African American players compared to Caucasian players,' and that he didn't know why 'you don't see that many seven-foot 80-year-olds walking around.'
Cardiologist Sanjay Sharma corroborated the fact, writing: "Despite several modifications in ECG interpretation criteria, these findings are more frequent in black athletes than white athletes. Using the refined criteria, abnormal ECG results are reported in 11.4% of black athletes compared with 5.3% of white athletes."
Engel said: "Their hearts become larger, the weight and mass changes, and we found that this is particularly true for the oldest players, aged 27 to 39, compared to the younger ones around 18 to 22. We need to look specifically at why that's the case."
However, these findings do not necessarily mean that basketball is bad on the heart. After researchers cross-referenced their scans with an ultrasound, they found that these abnormalities were mostly harmless for the players. But further research and clarity are required so that the current generation can enjoy both, a lengthy career and a long life post-career without unexpected and underlying health risks.
This study comes just over a decade after the NBA implemented mandatory ECG screening for players to combat the increased heart risk and Engel wants to continue it in the coming years, tracking today's stars long into their retirement. He also said that the association was working closely with Columbia to investigate the issue further and learn more about what exactly it was that is causing these underlying issues.
The phenomenon is by no means new and an eye-raising number of former NBA players have passed away from either heart disease or heart attacks. Hall of Fame center Moses Malone died at the age of 60, Sean Rooks died of a heart attack at the age of 46, Anthony Mason died from a heart attack at the age of 48, Darryl Dawkins at 56, and Hank Gathers infamously died on the court of a heart arrhythmia.
While these aforementioned names make the news, you rarely hear about those who still have to deal with those problems on a daily basis. Channing Frye and Jeff Green of the Cleveland Cavaliers have heart issues, and Etan Thomas, formerly of the Atlanta Hawks had to retire early.
As more money is pumped into the billion-dollar industry in the form of endorsements and infrastructure, there should be a marked improvement and advances in how players are assessed and treated. The NBA has already done one thing differently from the NFL: it has admitted that there is a problem.
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