Alan Thicke’s recent tragic and unexpected death has refocused attention on the risk to middle-aged and older men playing hockey and perhaps other sports. Is hockey really to blame? Should we all stop playing once we hit a certain age?

First, a disclosure: I still play what my sons lovingly refer to as “old fart” hockey and I referee.

Every year at least one of the guys in my league stops playing as a result of a heart issue. Thankfully no one has died on the ice but at least one guy came scarily very close, an episode I’d really not like to repeat.

The truth is, you need to be in shape to play hockey or basketball or soccer or any sport. What I tell people is: ”You get in shape to play safely (and well); you don’t play to get into shape. That’s because the sudden demands of these sports put a strain on the heart.” If you are already exercising on a regular basis, you are preparing your heart for that effort. But, if your only real workout is that game of pickup, the strain can be too much.

Sometimes you’ll get a warning that you should take seriously. For example: if you suddenly feel unwell, light-headed (as if you might pass out), are very short of breath (more than you normally are), or if you have chest pain, numbness in an arm or severe nausea and/or vomiting, stop whatever it is that you are doing and — even if the symptoms resolve — you need to be seen and checked out.

Unfortunately there may not always be a warning (or it’s ignored) and the first sign that something is wrong is the person collapsing onto the ice or the playing field or in the dressing room.

This is where we all have a chance to make a difference. Learning how to do the chest compressions that keep the heart going until help arrives, can save a life. It’s easy to learn, not dangerous to do and, you no longer need to do mouth to mouth breathing. The chest compressions are enough.

Courses are available through different organizations, like St John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross. In the meantime go online and look up CPR — cardiopulmonary resuscitation. There are some excellent videos that will give you a head start.

Lastly, is there an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) at the arena or near the field? This is the device that can electrically shock the heart out of a deadly rhythm triggered by the heart attack. These machines are trustworthy, easy to use and inexpensive. Think of that. Watching a video and getting your community to invest less than the cost of renting a couple of hours on the ice, could save a life.

It seems like a great deal to me.

Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Surgery, McGill Medical School and an Attending Physician, Emergency Department, McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.

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