Despite shockingly grim reports of marathoners collapsing and dying of a heart attack mid-race or tragically close to the finish line, it turns out that the risk of cardiac arrest in a long distance race is actually quite rare, according to a new study examining 10 years of marathon and half-marathon races in the U.S.
The report, published in the the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that of the 10.9 million runners in marathons and half marathons across the U.S. from Jan. 1, 2000 through May 31, 2010, only 59 suffered cardiac arrest. Forty-two of the 59 sufferers died.
“Marathons and half-marathons are associated with a low overall risk of cardiac arrest and sudden death,” study authors report.
“This is a pretty careful study, and it starts to give some more insight into who those people are,” Dr. Paul Thompson, cardiologist at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn. tells MSN.
The statistics translate to one cardiac arrest per 184,000 long distance runners and 1 death per 259,000 runners, researchers said.
Men are more likely to suffer cardiac arrest during a long-distance run than women. Of the recorded cases of cardiac arrest, 51 were men. In addition, most had an underlying condition, most often hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, marked by a thickening of the heart muscle which puts added stress on the heart to pump blood, which may have gone previously undiagnosed. This condition is often inherited.
Dr. Aaron Baggish, senior author of the study, urges runners to talk to their doctors about their heart health and risks before distance running.
Dr. Gordon Tomaselli, president of the American Heart Association, says that the results of the study are reassuring.
“Running a marathon, if you are so inclined, is a reasonably safe proposition,” he said.
Runners who are experiencing chest pain, dizziness, lightheadedness, or unprecedented shortness of breath or rapid heartbeat, should listen to their bodies, Tomaselli says.
“We don’t want to alarm people about marathon running. The benefits of exercise are well established,” Dr. Navin Kapur, one of the report’s authors, of Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said.