Sudden deaths are shocking and especially so when the victim is an athlete seemingly in the pink of health. Occasionally, we see them in football matches, baseball games, military training, marathons and even friendly, non-competitive events. What really happened? How could these people, who are often role models for healthy lifestyles, suddenly die of cardiac arrest?
Actually, these incidents should not be too shocking. Way back during the Korean war, autopsies on dead soldiers revealed that the average age of those with atherosclerosis or plaque buildup inside their arteries was 22. Separately, autopsies on the blood vessels of young people who have died in accidents also support that shocking fact. Clogged arteries don’t just affect old or overweight people.
Through various channels of information, we have been told that arteries clog up because high levels of fat in the body. Actually, fat cannot be transported in the bloodstream on its own. To travel around in our blood, fat must link up with proteins to form lipoproteins. A High level of low density lipoproteins is a strong predictor for heart disease. We have all been taught since young to avoid food high in fat, maintain a healthy BMI (body mass index) exercise regularly and avoid smoking to keep our body’s fat composition low.
While all that is good advice, we should be aware that even without a high level of low density lipoproteins in our blood, we can still get atherosclerosis. In fact, our arteries may start clogging up in our early teens! There is another mechanism that clogs our arteries. Methionine is an amino acid that we get from the digestion of protein-rich food. Methionine in excess may get converted into homocysteine, an amino acid which can trigger a response from our immune system to plug the injury with macrophages and white blood cells. Over time, plaque builds up from cells attempting to protect the body.
Most people are not in any way inconvenienced by these buildups, but make no mistake, they are ticking time-bombs. As long as there is no occlusion of the vessel, the individual will feel no symptoms at all and he/she may go on to run marathons, swim in the open sea or even break world records in the sporting arena. Regular medical checkups will not be able to detect any anomalies, but at any moment, especially when the body is under physical or emotional stress, a piece of that plaque inside the vessel can get dislodged. What follows is a stroke or a heart attack.
It is therefore important to understand that the fittest sportsmen or strongest mountain climbers (especially aging adventurers) may have clogged arteries. So don’t be shocked if they suddenly collapse from cardiac failure. It can happen to anyone. Life is so unpredictable. Seize the day.