Screening young people to see if they are at risk of sudden cardiac death is feasible and cost- effective, researchers have said.
The unexpected deaths of young people playing sport or going about their daily lives have prompted calls from health campaigners for routine tests to check for any abnormalities, but concerns about costs have also been raised.
Now a trial involving more than 12,000 people aged 14 to 35 has led to researchers saying heart screening could be cost-effective and a way to save lives.
The research, presented at a congress in Amsterdam, found that it cost around £35 to screen each young person, with those needing further investigations tested at “a relatively low additional cost”.
Reports of young people dying of undiagnosed heart conditions are still relatively rare.
In December Jamie Skinner, 13, collapsed and died of a suspected heart attack while playing football for Tynecastle FC’s under-14s team in Edinburgh.
In one high-profile case, footballer Fabrice Muamba survived after suffering a cardiac arrest while playing for Bolton Wanderers.
Dr Rajay Narain, from the Department of Cardiovascular Sciences at St George’s University of London, said the most publicised cases of sudden cardiac death (SCD) in young people occurred in elite sports players and athletes. But most were a result of inherited cardiac conditions which could be detected via checks on abnormalities in the heart rhythm, for example.
Dr Narain said: “To prevent such tragedies, sporting and scientific bodies recommend pre-participation screening in young athletes. However, this approach is controversial because of cost, and most SCDs in the young are likely to occur in non-competitive athletes.
“It was thus our aim to see if population screening was feasible in this age group.”
Of the 12,000 young people studied, 13 per cent were considered to be elite athletes. The £35 screening assessment involved a health questionnaire, an electrocardiogram – whereby electrodes are applied to the body to record the rhythm and electrical activity of the heart – and a consultation with a cardiologist.
Around one in ten (9.4 per cent) of those tested were sent for more detailed heart tests on the day, with 2.7 per cent referred for further assessment.
Overall, problems requiring regular follow-ups, such as irregular heart rhythm and valvular heart disease, were found in 31 of those screened.
Dr Narain said the concept of early identification of potential victims was still a highly contentious issue, with concerns about costs and the need for multiple tests to identify complex problems, as well as medical and legal implications for false positive or negative results.
But he said a screening programme could mean many sudden deaths from these conditions – around 15 a week in the UK – could be prevented.
Dr Steven Cox, of charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY), said: “This research by Dr Narain is a snapshot of one year of testing at CRY. Last year we tested almost 14,000 young people and the programme is expanding.”