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They don't detect all the problems that can lead to those deaths, says Maron. The new study couldn't tell the causes of players' deaths, just that they were heart-related. Then there's the ethical question of testing only athletes when youths not in organized sports sometimes die of these same heart conditions.
"Each and every sudden death is of course tragic," says Maron. But, "they're just not that common."
Moreover, EKGs can falsely signal a problem that requires more costly testing to rule out. A study published last year found 16 percent of routine athlete EKGs were those so-called false-positives.
Maron says sports physicals don't always include all the guideline-recommended questions that would flag someone who needs more intense screening.
A study from Italy a few years ago reported a drop in athletes' sudden cardiac deaths after that country began mandating exams that include an EKG. Last month, a study from Israel found no change from adding EKGs.
Some U.S. colleges have begun recommending an EKG for all their athletes, and parent organizations sponsor community screenings, too.
At the University of Washington, Harmon says adjusting the tests to an athlete's somewhat different readings means that only 5 percent falsely indicated a problem.
The University of Georgia gives incoming athletes both an EKG and a more expensive echocardiogram, an ultrasound exam that can detect different problems. Typically one or two students a year have some abnormality detected, often treatable ones, says sports medicine director Ron Courson, a spokesman for the National Athletic Trainers Association.
But a good medical history is "still the most important thing," he says.
So is having defibrillators at all sports venues and plenty of staff trained to use them, Courson contends. "That way, if you do have something, you're prepared to deal with it," he says.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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