Sudden cardiac death is the most common cause of natural death in the United States, accounting for approximately 325,000 adult deaths per year. It is responsible for about half of all deaths caused by heart disease. New findings from the 11-year-old Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study suggest that sudden cardiac death may not be as “sudden” as we believe.
The results of the study, presented at the annual scientific sessions of the American Heart Association, found that signs of sudden cardiac arrest can be detected in middle-aged men at least a month before a fatal attack.
Sudden cardiac death occurs because the heart stops functioning; this is known as sudden cardiac arrest. It is important to note that sudden cardiac arrest is not a heart attack, however, it can occur during a heart attack.
A heart attack occurs when the arteries to the heart become blocked, which prevents the heart from receiving enough oxygenated blood resulting in heart damage. A heart attack can range in severity and is not always fatal.
Sudden cardiac arrest is the malfunctioning of the electrical system to the heart. The electrical system becomes irregular, making the heart beat extremely fast. The ventricles of the heart may start to flutter and blood isn’t delivered to the body. Death will result from sudden cardiac arrest if not treated immediately, and treatment for sudden cardiac arrest includes cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in combination with defibrillation.
Previous research on sudden cardiac arrest has focused on signs and symptoms that occur within an hour of an attack. The goal of the current study was to determine if signs and symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest could be detected for up to a month prior to the attack.
The researchers studied medical records of 567 men, aged 35 to 65 years that had out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest. The results showed that 53 percent of the men who had sudden attacks actually had symptoms prior to the attack; 56 percent of these men had chest pain, 13 percent had shortness of breath and 4 percent had dizziness, fainting or heart palpitations.
The signs and symptoms appeared in 80 percent of these men between four weeks and one hour prior to the attack. The researchers found that while most of the men had coronary artery disease, only half of them had been tested for it prior to their attack. While this study focused on middle-aged men, future research is planned to see if the same results are found in women.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Sumeet Chugh, stressed that if you have any of the symptoms of cardiac arrest, you shouldn’t ignore them: Chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting or heart palpitations. It is important to see your doctor if you notice any of these because immediate treatment may save your life.