Cardiac Arrest at 25? It Happens — and More Often

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OK, young Americans. Put down those double-bacon cheeseburgers and put out those cigarettes. There's bad news out there about your heart health. Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Heart Association released an eye-catching new report. According to the study, the 1990s saw a sizable rise in the death rate from sudden cardiac arrest among young adults aged 15 to 34. While fatal cardiac arrests remain extremely rare among young people (there were 2,710 deaths from cardiac arrest in 1989 and 3,000 in 1996), scientists are nonetheless surprised by the increase. Cardiac arrests are not the same as heart attacks, which happen when arteries are blocked off and the heart doesn't get the blood it needs. Rather, they are caused by a malfunction of the electrical impulses that help keep the heart beating.

Researchers are particularly concerned by two major disparities that emerged from the results: The death rate for cardiac arrests rose three times faster in young women than in young men, and rose 19 percent among blacks versus 14 percent among whites. Professor Rose Marie Robertson, director of the Women's Heart Institute at Vanderbilt University and president of the American Heart Association, talked to about what the study means — and what can be done to reverse this trend. First of all, is cardiac arrest the same as sudden cardiac death?

Robertson: Yes, they're the same thing. Cardiac arrest is caused by electrical problems in the heart, which cause the heart to stop pumping blood.

Why is this study important?

Robertson: The fact that researchers were looking at information gathered over a number of years means there is a real rise here, not just a statistical fluke.

Is there anything we can do to prevent cardiac arrests in the first place?

Robertson: Of course. It's very interesting that these numbers have risen at the same time as we've seen an increase in unhealthy lifestyle choices — decreasing physical activity, rise in weight, an increase in cigarette advertising among youth. Young women still consider smoking an effective weight control method. All this leads to a lot of questions.

So other than making better lifestyle choices, what can be done to keep these rates from going up even more?

Robertson: One of the most important things to take away from this is that death from cardiac arrest is not inevitable. If we had more people reacting quickly we could prevent these deaths. We need to educate people about calling 911, performing CPR, or, as a recent AHA program has encouraged, using portable defibrillators.

But can't we just assume that cigarettes and obesity and drugs are causing these heart problems?

Robertson: Not exactly. What we can say at this point is that fatal cardiac arrests are a serious problem, and that there are things we can do to prevent their occurrence. We need to conduct further investigations — this type of study is mean to generate a hypothesis, not answer all our questions.