I remember back when I was distance running competitively, reading an article about a marathon runner who had died of a massive heart attack. With no research, I came to the conclusion that a heart attack while running was probably an unstoppable death.

If you think about it, most people that have heart attacks don’t have the event while their heart is working at maximum capacity. So if their heart is working at a more normal pace it seems that the amount of damage done would be less severe. Even with the quick recovery that a well conditioned athlete has, if your heart gives out at 140 beats a minute and can’t slow down, there’s just no way to survive.

I was reading about the marathon runner who died this past weekend, Ryan Shay. Apparently he was diagnosed at age 14 with an enlarged heart. While they haven’t officially linked that to the cause of death, studies have shown that an enlarged heart is the leading cause of death in athletes.

Unfortunately the condition that kills athletes, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, is hard to distinguish from a condition called athlete’s heart. With athlete’s heart, the heart enlargement is due to the amount of exercise. The thing that differentiates it from cardiomyopathy is that with athlete’s heart, the entire heart has a thickening of the walls, a uniform strengthening. With cardiomyopathy, it is generally just one area of the heart that has thickened walls, creating an imbalance in the way blood is pumped.

Generally an enlarged heart is a treatable health issue. From a life insurance standpoint, with no other risk factors, standard and possibly better rates are possible.

Bottom line. Perhaps there should be closer scrutiny of the type of athletes that push their bodies beyond certain limits. Certainly, as a parent, I can see some logic to having a young athlete get a cardiac workup before letting them take things to a higher level, especially in sports where you have long periods of cardiovascular stress. My condolences go out to Ryan’s family. He sounds like he was an exceptional young man in many ways.