It is a sad but well known fact that many major marathons see a small number of athletes die after suffering heart attacks.
But a new study suggests that merely being in the vicinity of a big public race, such as this month’s London Marathon, increases the chances of death.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School have established that people who suffer a heart attack when there is a marathon taking place nearby have a 15 per cent higher chance of dying within the next month than if the episode struck on a non race day.
When it comes to treating people in the throes of a heart attack, minutes do matter
Dr Anupam Jena, Harvard Medical School
They found that, despite the legion of emergency services personnel usually present along the 26.2-mile route, the traffic is often so clogged up by road closures that crucial minutes are lost getting patients to hospital.
Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study showed that ambulance transport to hospital was delayed by an average of 4.4 minutes on marathon days.
“When it comes to treating people in the throes of a heart attack, minutes do matter - heart muscle dies quickly during a heart attack,” said Dr Anupam Jena, who led the research.
While previous studies have examined death rates among marathon runners to assess the cardiac risks of endurance training, this is believed to be the first research analysing impact of such races on those living nearby due to causes that have nothing to do with the physical exertion of running a marathon.
The investigators examined 10 years' worth of patient records analyzing death rates among older Americans, 65 years of age and over, within 30 days of having a heart attack or a cardiac arrest near a major marathon.
Death rates among patients hospitalised on the day of the race were compared with those hospitalised five weeks prior or five weeks after the race, and researchers also compared death rates among people living close to the event and those living in areas unaffected by street closures.
"When cities host big marathons, or when people participate in races, they don't think that there might be a chance that a person not taking part in the race could die because of the event,” said Jena.