Universities Week is back. This year the theme of the week is the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

This week universities across the UK will be demonstrating how they are contributing to the Olympics – from arts and culture projects, community investment, and sport-related research, to varied forms of involvement at the games themselves.

Find out more about Universities Week.

A number of St George’s staff, students and alumni will be supporting the games, many of whom will be taking up vital medical roles. Research projects at St George’s also have Olympic links and are striving to create a better sports, health or social environment that will contribute to the Olympic legacy, which has been the subject of much rhetoric around the events.

Sanjay Sharma, professor of inherited cardiac disease in sport at St George’s, University of London, is investigating the normal parameters of athletes’ hearts to ensure that they are not unnecessarily advised to abandon a sporting career.

The pursuit of a sporting career may put the lives of young athletes at risk if they have one of a number of asymptomatic inherited heart conditions that involve structural abnormalities – abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, for example. Because of their training regimes, young athletes are more at risk of sudden death than spectators with the same cardiac conditions.
Many sports people who are suspected of having this condition are advised to abandon competitive sport. Yet those features associated with sudden cardiac death are similar to the effects continuous training has on the heart.

It's crucial therefore to know what are the normal parameters for an athlete's heart to ensure particular features are not erroneously attributed to a 'sudden death syndrome' heart condition, says Professor Sharma.

Professor Sharma’s work has found that normal heart parameters are affected by demographic factors like ethnicity, gender and age – research completed last year found the hearts of Afro-Caribbean athletes differ from the hearts of white athletes. These are particularly important findings, he says, because previous guidelines setting out the norms to inform screening programmes were based on Caucasian hearts and did not take account of differences caused by ethnicity – leading potentially to unfair and invalid disqualification for the 20 per cent of elite athletes who are black.