Closeup of hands doing chest compressions on a manikin model.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest and the Shocking Statistics

Professional headshot of a man.

by Tom Pahl, PA-C, Emergency Department

Imagine a young athlete who exercises regularly, eats the right foods and is in excellent shape. His heart suddenly stops and you instantly think “heart attack,” but sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is different from a heart attack. Think of a heart attack as a plumbing problem of the heart. Sudden cardiac arrest is an electrical problem of the heart that keeps it from pumping properly. Blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs. A person who has suffered SCA will suddenly collapse and lose consciousness with no pulse or breathing.

According to the American Heart Association, SCA claims more lives than colorectal cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, influenza, pneumonia, auto accidents, HIV, firearms, and house fires combined. It is responsible for half of all heart dis­ease deaths. If you are with someone who experiences SCA, call 911 right away and begin CPR or just chest compressions alone until emergency personnel ar­rive. Survival rates can double or triple if the person receives immediate CPR or chest compressions. Without the chest compressions or a shock from an automated defibrillator (AED), the SCA victim most often dies within minutes causing “sudden cardiac death.”

Although SCA is sudden and unexpected, sometimes without any prior symptoms. There are factors that may heighten your risk including hyper­thyroidism, drug abuse, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and more. Heart problems leading to cardiac arrest can produce signs that should prompt you to see your doctor. These symptoms may consist of chest pain and black­outs (especially with exertion), fainting, fluttering of the heart, becoming easily fatigued, weakness, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Pay close attention to any of these symptoms and consult with your doctor.

There is no sure way to know if or when SCA will happen to you, so the best thing to do is try to prevent it by lowering your risk as much as possible. You can accomplish this by eating a nutritious and balanced diet, being physically active, avoiding energy drinks, not smoking or abusing drugs or alcohol and getting regular medical checkups. All these things and more can keep your heart healthy and even save your life.

It is common to think, “This won’t happen to me!” You may be right, but it may happen to someone next to you. Remember the first minutes count the most so take action immediately. Call 911, or have someone call for you while you begin CPR or chest compressions. If an AED is available, the best chance for rescuing the person involves defibrillation with that device, which can help restart the heart. Advanced medical treatment will continue in the ambulance and closest emergency room. If you do not know how to perform chest compressions or CPR, sign up for a class in your community. Your knowledge and willingness to act may help save a life.