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Study: Heart attack deaths rise when a large marathon is in town

Being in a town where a major marathon is being run can pose a life-and-death hazard, researchers say.

FILE: Athletes take part in a marathon. Picture: EWN

RHODE ISLAND - Being in a town where a major marathon is being run can pose a life-and-death hazard, researchers say.

A new study of cities hosting the largest US marathons has found that the odds of dying if you have a heart attack or cardiac arrest jump 13% the day the race is run.

The authors think that’s because blocked streets and traffic congestion add precious minutes to the time it takes for rescue units to get to the hospital.

On marathon days, it added more than four minutes in the 11 cities they studied.

For people who drive themselves or have someone drive them, the delay is potentially much longer.

“The data are believable and the results important,” said Dr Selim Suner of Brown University’s Alpert Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island, who was not involved in the research.

“This will probably open the eyes of some of the planners for the events,” he told Reuters Health.

“Most people have not thought of this as unintended consequence of marathons and other public events,” said study co-author Dr Anupam Jena, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Discussions with officials in the cities revealed “a lot of variability in terms of their awareness of this being a potential issue,” he noted.

Jena and his colleagues looked at Medicare data from cities where marathons were run from 2002 through 2012, comparing death rates on the day of the race to rates in the five weeks before and the five weeks after.

He and his team also compared rates in the host cities to those in surrounding zip codes that were unaffected by the race.

They found that the presence of the race in a city didn’t alter the number of cases of heart attack or cardiac arrest among people over age 64, but it did increase their rate of death within 30 days of the cardiac event from 24.9% when a marathon wasn’t being run to 28.2% when it was.

In addition, the rates of heart attack combined with cardiac arrest were twice as high among beneficiaries hospitalised on marathon dates as among similar beneficiaries hospitalised on non-marathon dates, “a finding that is consistent with delayed care,” the researchers write in the New England Journal of Medicine.

When they focused on ambulance transport times in the morning - when the races are usually run - they found that while it typically took 13.7 minutes to get to a hospital, the time increased to 18.1 minutes on marathon days. The number of miles driven was unaffected by a race.

“Several things could be done to address the problem,” Suner said. “Special routes could be preassigned for emergency medical services for different locations or planning could include rerouting to other hospitals.”

“The second issue here, which is more challenging to solve, is we found about 25% of people admitted with cardiac arrest or heart attack actually came in by themselves,” Jena told Reuters Health. “They were not brought in by ambulance, and those individuals probably experienced very large delays in transport time.”

One solution could be to advise the public that if you have chest pains or shortness of breath, or symptoms that are alarming, the best thing to do anytime or particularly on a marathon day is to call the EMS and not drive to the hospital yourself, he added.

In all, the researchers evaluated 1,145 hospitalizations on marathon dates and 11,074 on non-marathon dates in Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington DC. There were not enough data to see if the death rates were lower in some marathon cities than others.

The study team also tried to exclude marathon participants from their tally.

But Suner, who is director of the disaster medicine and emergency preparedness department at Brown, cautioned that the study doesn’t directly show cause and effect, and the researchers may have failed to account for other things that could make it look like the marathons produced extra deaths.

“For example: the authors did not look at daily temperature or ozone levels which may have been higher on marathon days accounting for increased death in this population,” he said in an email.

“Also, there may have been increased volume in the emergency departments during marathon days, making the care for people with myocardial infarction less than ideal.”

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