Nearly 20% of NBA Players Have Heart Issues, Study Finds

Nearly, 1 in 5 NBA players has heart scans that appear abnormal, according to a new study.

Approximately 20% of today’s basketball stars have abnormal heart scans, according to a new detailed assessment of the NBA’s heart health. Basketball players are 30 times more likely than any other to suffer a sudden cardiac death, and very few 7-foot tall basketball players live to their 90s.

The new research was conducted by NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University and includes data on every player in the NBA in 2014. Now researchers are attempting to understand why.

Researchers found abnormalities on an electrocardiogram for players in their second half of their career, or over the age of 27 years old.

That said, researchers say that these findings do not suggest basketball is dangerous for the heart. In fact, researchers cross-referenced their scans with an ultrasound, and they found these abnormalities were relatively healthy and harmless for the players. Researchers suggest NBA stars receive targeted heart assessment to monitor their health especially as they get older.

“We have shown that players do develop significant changes with exercise,” David Engel, lead author of the study which was published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.”

Their hearts become larger, the weight and mass changes, and we found that this is particularly true for the oldest players, aged 27 to 39, compared to the younger ones around 18 to 22. We need to look specifically at why that’s the case.”

Dr. Engle plans to conduct a longitudinal study tracking today’s NBA stars. In particular, he wants to understand why tall African Americans have such dangerous heart risks.

“There are significant differences in African American players compared to Caucasian players, so that is something else we are looking into.”

The study was conducted ten years after the NBA first implemented mandatory ECG screening for players, the most comprehensive cardiac testing and monitoring program of any sport, given the high heart risk.

The study examined around 500 players, 400 of whom were African American, in the pre-season of 2014. In comparison to other athletes, researchers discovered 81 NBA athletes, about 15.6%, had abnormal heart scans.

Dr. Engel has not been able to determine what it is about NBA exercise regimens that increase existing health risks. His goal is to create a better scanning process, so players can continue to play longer than previous generations ever did and to live a long life after their NBA career.