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This article is part of a series of research impact stories related to our REF 2021 submission.

Sudden cardiac death is the most common medical cause of death in elite athletes. High profile cases, particularly among professional footballers, have piqued interest in the field, with St George’s researchers leading the way.  

A team led by Professor Sanjay Sharma from the Molecular and Clinical Sciences Research Institute has paved the way for screening athletes for heart conditions, developing international recommendations in the process.  

Ground-breaking research, funded by the charities, Cardiac Risk in the Young and the British Heart Foundation began in 2010, with the research group evaluating normal and abnormal electrical patterns in the hearts of athletes. 

The group made key findings, including identifying electrical patterns associated with no increased risk of cardiac disease, confirming the high risks associated with other electrical patterns, and flagging certain patterns as likely false positives 

These findings have since been brought into international recommendations. Compared to the previous guidelines, the new recommendations have improved the ability to detect serious heart disease in black athletes from 40% to 84%, and from 74% to 94% in white athletes.  

Speaking on the impact of the work, Professor Sanjay Sharma, said: “We are extremely proud of the influence we’ve been able to have in the field of sports cardiology."

"Having our hard work validated and used by organisations around the globe has been truly humbling and will hopefully ensure that athletes remain as safe as possible while competing at the highest level.” 

The group’s work has led to widescale changes in how athletes are looked after by international sporting bodies. Elite sporting organisations such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA now advocate for cardiac screening in athletes as a result of the team’s efforts. 

In 2017, the research group suggested further changes to the European Society of Cardiology recommendations on interpreting the results of cardiac screening in athletes. This time factoring in age and ethnicity, as well as more clearly distinguishing between abnormal and normal heart patterns. The new recommendations are now being used by UK sporting institutions such as the Football Association, the Lawn Tennis Association and English Institute of Sport, as well as many international sporting bodies.  

“We believe that at least two million athletes have been assessed using the guidelines we developed in 2017,” says Professor Sharma.

“This will have resulted in around 60,000 new diagnoses of serious disease, meaning action can be taken to save the lives of sportspeople with hidden underlying conditions.” 

As well as having an impact on elite sports, Cardiac Risk in the Young now use the guidelines to investigate non-elite sportspeople in the UK, aged 14-35 years old, preventing serious cardiac events amongst this group.  

Thanks to the work of the research team, thousands of young people in the UK and beyond with heart conditions can now be identified and treated sooner, returning to competition more safely.   

“With our recommendations and new technologies for people with heart conditions, we can see more and more avid sportspeople returning to sport safely. Hopefully we’ve not only saved the lives of many young athletes, but also removed the fear that can be a barrier to sports.” 

If you are interested in following in the footsteps of our incredible sports cardiologists, you can find out more about our Sports Cardiology programme online.  

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