Sudden Cardiac Arrest: What you need to know heading into the season
By Lori Wade
Cardiac death represents one of the most frightening acute health crises in today’s society. According to the most recently available statistics from the American Heart Association, a daily average of nearly 1,000 Americans experience cardiac arrest requiring the aid of emergency medical services. When with the assistance of EMS technicians and state-of-the-art treatment, only about 10 percent of these individuals will survive their cardiac event.
Even more alarming is the fact that adults aren't the only ones who can experience sudden cardiac death. Children and young adults, even the most athletic ones, may also experience potentially fatal cardiac arrest. Let's examine this issue and look at ways you might prevent an unexpected cardiac crisis in your children or young athletes.
What is Sudden Cardiac Death?
Sudden cardiac death, also called cardiac arrest, is a total failure of the heart to pump blood, which results in death. Technically, this event is not the same thing as a heart attack, although a heart attack might indeed induce sudden cardiac death. It occurs when the heart experiences an electrical disturbance of some sort that interrupts the muscle's normal pumping motion.
Emergency treatment to get the heart beating, often involving the use of electrical jolts to the muscle, can enable someone to survive cardiac arrest. (Functional recovery, however, may take a year or longer.) If these emergency measures fail, the cardiac arrest will prove fatal.
Why Young People Experience Sudden Cardiac Death
As difficult as it may be to imagine, young people's hearts can fail suddenly and unexpectedly. A variety of underlying conditions can produce sudden cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death. Examples include:
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: This is the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in young people. Thickening of the heart ventricles interferes with normal heart action.
- Arrhythmias: Abnormalities in heart rhythm can bring on sudden cardiac death, even if the heart itself has no structural issues. Congenital heart rhythm problems, electrical dysfunctions in the heart, or arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (in which scar tissue starts to replace normal muscle tissue) may be to blame.
- Substances: Certain prescription medications, illicit drugs, and other stimulants can alter the heart rate and promote cardiac arrest.
- Myocarditis: This condition, characterized by inflammation of the heart muscle, may stem from either infections or allergic reactions.
- Congenital abnormalities: Some congenital conditions make young people vulnerable to sudden cardiac death. For instance, Marfan syndrome can cause weakness and tears in the aortic artery. Defects in the structure of other coronary arteries can also lead to a cardiac crisis.
- Chest impacts. A blow to the chest, as might be sustained in a high-impact sport, can cause cardiac arrest. This problem is known as commotio cordis.
Risk Factors for Children and Young Adults
Congenital diseases aren't the only pre-existing risk factors that can influence a youngster's risk for sudden cardiac death. Simply being male increases a person's overall risk. A family history of cardiac arrest, abnormal heart rhythm, cardiomyopathy (heart enlargement), or heart structure defects should put parents and coaches on the alert. In fact, a history of such conditions in a first-degree relative can essentially double a child's risk for sudden cardiac death.
Prevalence of Sudden Cardiac Death in Young Populations
Thankfully, sudden cardiac death in children and young adults is relatively rare, compared to its incidence rate in the adult population. In 2019, 7,039 out of the 356,461 reported cases of cardiac arrest in the U.S. involved children. An examination of Portland, Oregon cases showed that sports activities factored into 39 percent of incidents involving kids aged 18 or under. An additional 13 percent of sports-related sudden cardiac arrests occurred in the 19-to-25 age group, with only 7 percent of them occurring in adults aged 25 to 34.
Reducing the Dangers: Preventative Strategies and Emergency Responses
Knowing a child's medical history, and any family history of heart problems is an essential first step in assessing sudden cardiac death risk in children and young adults. This information can play a key role alongside the information revealed by regular wellness exams and cardiac screenings.
While some cases of sudden cardiac death may occur during sleep, they occur more commonly in association with physical exercise. For this reason, young athletes should receive pre-participation screening before trying out for sports teams or entering sporting events. Even non-athletic kids can benefit from periodic health screenings that include heart evaluations, since these kids may be getting plenty of exercise through P.E. classes or everyday playground activities. If a major risk factor is discovered, the young person in question may need to avoid certain sports or other heavy burdens on the cardiovascular system.
No matter how carefully you screen your children or young athletes for potential heart problems, a cardiac arrest may still happen. If it does, you must have a plan in place to deal with it immediately. First of all, know how to recognize common symptoms of cardiac arrest such as:
- Chest pains
- Unexplained wheezing or another breathing difficulty
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or loss of consciousness
- Heart palpitations or abnormal heartbeat
Make sure that you and your team members can perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and contact emergency medical services without delay. Equip your school or sports facility with automated external defibrillators (AEDs), and make sure your organization's adults and kids are trained to use them safely in case of emergency.
You can help the children and young adults in your life avoid the unexpected tragedy of sudden cardiac death. Take this information to heart -- the hearts of others may depend on it!
Lori Wade is a journalist from Louisville. She is a content writer who has experience in small editions. She is currently engaged in growing awareness around heart conditions such as Sudden Cardiac Arrest. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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