Sudden cardiac death (SCD) often occurs in active, seemingly fit, and healthy people with no known heart disease or other health problems. It often strikes adults in their mid-30s to mid-40s, though it can strike teenagers as well as senior citizens. But in reality, SCD is not an arbitrary incident.
Most victims have heart disease or other health problems, although they may not know it and may have had no symptoms until their heart suddenly stops pumping blood to the rest of their body.
There are many tests and devices your doctor may perform or use to evaluate your risk for SCD. Among these are an Electrocardiogram (EKG), Echocardiogram, Holter Monitor, Event Recorder, and a Electrophysiology Study (EPS).
Sudden cardiac arrests can be experienced by anyone, including children.
Sudden cardiac arrests can be experienced by anyone, including children. In fact, student athletes are more than 3.5 times likely to experience sudden cardiac arrest than non-athletes.
In 1993, professional basketball player Reggie Lewis collapsed and died during an off-season practice. He was only 27. Olympic gold-medal ice skater Sergei Grinkov died from SCD at the age of 28. Steve Gootter, an accomplished amateur athlete, was stricken by sudden cardiac death at the age of 42, with no previous warning signs of any health problem.
Sudden cardiac death in professional athletes is still relatively rare. Yet, health experts worry that athletes may unknowingly be at risk—even youth. Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) was the leading cause of death on school campuses and the leading cause of death for athletes. More than 7,000 youth under the age of 18 suffer from SCA annually in the United States, with student athletes being more than 3.5 times as likely to experience SCA as non-athletes.*
Most are unaware that they are at risk because they have little to no symptoms. Doctors urge health screenings for those who regularly participate in vigorous exercise.
Before launching any exercise or training program, always consult your doctor and get an evaluation of your risk for SCD and other heart disease.
The most common cause of SCD is a heart rhythm disorder, called ventricular fibrillation (VF), (a quivering of the heart’s lower chambers), or ventricular tachycardia (extremely rapid but ineffective beating of the heart’s lower chambers).
This irregular heart rhythm causes the heart suddenly to stop pumping blood to the rest of the body. If blood does not flow to the brain, it becomes starved of oxygen, and the person loses consciousness in a matter of seconds.
A Previous Heart Attack
75% of the people who die of SCD show signs of a previous heart attack.
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
80% of SCD’s victims have signs of coronary artery disease. This is a condition in which the arteries that supply blood to the heart are narrowed or blocked.
When SCD occurs in young adults, other heart abnormalities, including congenital ones, can be the cause. Adrenaline released during intense physical or athletic activity often acts as a trigger when these abnormalities are present.
Medications & Illegal Drugs
Under certain conditions, various heart medications and other drugs (as well as the use of some illegal drugs), can lead to abnormal heart rhythms that can cause SCD.
If an episode of sudden cardiac arrest was due to ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation, survivors are at risk for another arrest, especially if they have underlying heart disease. Survivors of sudden cardiac arrest must have all causes corrected to prevent future episodes.
Depending on the underlying cause of sudden cardiac arrest, possible tests and treatments include Cardiac Catheterization, Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery, Balloon Angioplasty or PTCA, Antiarrhythmic Medication, Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD), Implantable Pacemaker, or Heart Transplant.
Living a heart-healthy life can help to reduce the chances of dying from sudden cardiac arrest or other heart conditions. This includes eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a reasonable weight, and avoiding smoking.
It also is important to monitor and treat diseases and conditions that can contribute to heart problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. For some people, preventing sudden cardiac death means controlling the abnormal heart rhythms that may trigger ventricular fibrillation.
Treatment can include medication, an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or other medical interventions. Consult with your doctor to determine the treatment plan that is best for you.