Dogs in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it would now appear, aren't the only athletes whose risks of sudden death are heightened by competitive engagement. A new study out from Dr. Kimberly Harmon and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle indicates the death rate of student athletes has been significantly underestimated.
Harmon and her colleagues concluded college athletes face a 1-in-43,700 chance of dying of sudden cardiac death ever year, and the risks go up significantly for certain athletes:
Basketball players, the study said, are the student-athletes most likely to die, followed by swimmers, lacrosse players, football players, and cross-country runners.
A variety of other studies have shown that exercise increases the risk of dying of a heart attack in or around the time of exercise, but all studies agree that people who exercise face significantly smaller risks of death from heart attack, heart disease and a wide variety of illnesses over the long term.
Harmon and her colleagues suggested electrocardiographic screening of athletes before participation in sports might identify some with heart problems and lower the risks of death. But the website MedPage Today noted "professional organizations differ on the cost-effectiveness of routine ECG screening."
The European Society of Cardiology and the International Olympic Committee recommend an ECG as part of routine screening before sports participation, but the American Heart Association recommends using a detailed medical history and physical examination, with an ECG reserved for the follow-up of concerning signs.
The Iditarod dog race began pre-race, ECG screening of sled dogs years ago. Iditarod chief veteraninarian Stu Nelson has credited that and other changes, including the propyhlactic use of dietary supplements such as Vitamin E, with lowering the risks of death for dogs entered in the race.
The death rate for an Iditarod sled dog, he said, now lies "somewhere between the death rate for humans engaged in jogging and those participating in cross country skiing," which would appear to make it about 10 times safer for a sled-dog to run the 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome than for a young, black man to play Division I college basketball.
Despite this, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Humane Society of the United States and other animal-rights groups have called for an end to the Iditarod. PETA this year called it an "annual husky massacre,'' and took credit for forcing the federal Transportation Safety Administration to pull its sponsorship of the race.
The Iditarod "massacre,'' however, ended without a single dog death. Sled dog veterinarians note that because of the natural short-life spans of dogs and the risks of death associated with prolonged exercise the odds against this happening are significant, and yet the Iditarod has now managed to do it twice.
Animals rights groups have argued for requiring more mandatory stops along the 1,000-mile Iditarod route to make the journey easier on the dogs, but veterinarians have cautioned that could turn the race into a series of sprints between checkpoints, making it much more like baskeball than cross-country running.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com