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MN Study: Look Beyond the Grave For Sudden-Death Answers

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 By Laura ThornquistContact
November 16, 2009

ROCHESTER, Minn. - Less than a month ago, three men died during the 32nd Detroit Marathon. Most people would have pegged "shock" as the best description of the cause of death.

However, on Sunday researchers speaking at the annual American Heart Association international cardiovascular meeting in Orlando made a new revelation. They suggest that looking beyond the grave at sudden, unexpected death cases in the young could determine not only the cause of death but forewarn family members of potential dangers to themselves.

Dr. Michael Ackermann, lead researcher at the Mayo Clinic, says physicians struggle for answers when a young person dies suddenly, and family members struggle for answers, too. These cases often have no closure - and offer no knowledge of whether other family members might be at risk.

In the new Mayo Clinic study, Ackermann focused on postmortem testing to identify genetic mutations associated with sudden, unexplained death. The study concluded that 25 percent to 35 percent of victims had genetic defects.

Ackermann says such testing beyond the grave saves families money and heartache.

"It's tragically frustrating for the cardiologist who says 'How many tests should I order on the living members?' and 'When is enough enough?', when we don't even know why the young person died suddenly in the first place."

Currently, insurance companies cover extensive testing on the living when a young family member dies suddenly, Ackermann says. His study revealed postmortem testing on the diseased could have saved more than $1 million by avoiding unnecessary testing on family members.

If doctors learn diseases are present in a family, Ackermann says, they are highly treatable in the living. Therefore, he urges insurance companies to stretch coverage beyond death.

"It just may be smart money to extend coverage a week or two - or a month or two - beyond the grave; it could be actually quite a cost savings initiative for the insurance companies themselves."

Even with only about 1,500 sudden unexplained deaths a year, when you look at total years of lost life, Ackermann says, these tragic youth deaths rival the sudden deaths of the elderly.

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