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.