Cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death worldwide, and it can be triggered by a number of underlying conditions including ischemic heart disease, hereditary heart arrhythmias, and even diabetes. While diabetes doesn’t get nearly as much attention as heart disease when it comes to cardiac arrest, it actually poses a significant danger. If you live with this condition, it’s important to know whether you’re at a heightened risk for cardiac arrest and recognize the steps for prevention.
The Link Between Diabetes and Cardiac Arrest
The math is alarming. More than 350,000 people experience cardiac arrest every year in the U.S., and roughly 90% of cases are fatal. Add to that the fact that there are over 29 million diabetes sufferers in the U.S. and people with type 2 diabetes are at a 2-to-4-fold risk of sudden cardiac arrest (according to a review from University of Washington researchers). The risk for juvenile diabetes sufferers is even higher (more on that later).
Cardiac arrest results from a sudden malfunction of the heart’s electrical system, which regulates heart rhythm. The malfunction causes irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), which can lead to the heart muscle shutting down entirely (cardiac arrest).
The reasons for the correlation between diabetes and cardiac arrest aren’t fully understood. We do know that diabetes results from insufficient insulin production, which results in excess sugar in the bloodstream. Over time, elevated blood sugar can damage nerves and blood vessels, including those connected to the heart. Blood vessel damage leads to coronary microvascular disease and macrovascular disease, both of which are key risk factors for cardiac arrest.
But it’s not just blood vessel abnormalities that link diabetes to cardiac arrest. Diabetes also commonly overlaps with other risk factors such as:
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
These comorbidities may heighten the risk of cardiac arrest in a diabetes sufferer.
Cardiac Arrest Risk Is Especially High in Young Diabetes Sufferers
The increased cardiac arrest risk is especially apparent in young diabetes sufferers. A study from Denmark concluded that children and young adults with diabetes have as much as a 7-fold risk of cardiac death—defined as death from cardiac arrest. (See also: Top Causes of Cardiac Arrest in Young People)
The study was carried out by researchers at Copenhagen University Hospital. The research found that young sufferers had an 8-fold risk of dying from some form of heart disease when compared to peers without diabetes.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes sufferers were at an elevated risk, but the risk was especially high for type 1 sufferers. The researchers examined 669 people who died from diabetes and found that:
- 70% of those who died had type 1 diabetes (insulin-dependent diabetes that usually manifests in childhood—believed to be caused by an autoimmune reaction not related to lifestyle factors)
- 30% of those who died had type 2 diabetes (a common type of diabetes that can manifest at any age and is usually related to lifestyle factors like poor diet, smoking, and inactivity)
The average age for cardiac arrest is 60. Cardiac arrest in young people is rare, but when it does occur, diabetes may often be a contributing factor.
Preventing Sudden Death When You Have Diabetes
If you do live with diabetes, there’s good news. You can reduce your risk of cardiac arrest with some basic lifestyle maintenance.
The aforementioned University of Washington researchers recommended the following for anyone looking to manage their diabetes for long-term heart health:
- Consume 1 to 2 servings of fatty fish per week
- Maintain a heart-healthy diet
- Quit smoking
- Engage in moderate-intensity exercise regularly
- Keep high cholesterol under control
- Keep hypertension (high blood pressure) under control
For most sufferers, some type of medication will be in order. This may include diabetes medications, statins (for LDL- cholesterol), and antihypertensive drugs.
If you suffer from type 1 diabetes, you’ll also need to be diligent about your insulin regime. Work closely with your doctor to keep your blood glucose within a healthy range at all times.
Just beware of over-treating your diabetes. If you take more insulin than is recommended, you may increase your risk for seizures, coma, and even death. Low blood sugar can deprive your brain of necessary oxygen, which likewise can lead to the kinds of dangerous heart arrhythmias that cause cardiac arrest. Always follow your doctor’s recommendations.
What to Do if Cardiac Arrest Occurs
If you know you’re at a heightened risk of cardiac arrest due to diabetes, you’ll want to have a plan in place just in case an emergency does arise. Cardiac arrest doesn’t have to be fatal if swift action is taken.
Make sure that everyone in your home is trained in CPR. When the heart stops beating, CPR chest compressions can keep the blood pumping to vital organs until help arrives.
In addition, every diabetes sufferer should keep an automated external defibrillator (AED) in the home. An AED is a portable device that’s used to shock the heart after cardiac arrest. In many cases, this can restore normal heart function following a cardiac event.
One study found that cardiac arrest victims who received immediate AED intervention were 2.62 times more likely to survive compared to victims who received a shock after emergency medical services arrived. Every minute matters!
When browsing AEDs for sale, always look for FDA-approved brands like ZOLL, Philips, HeartSine, Defibtech, and Physio-Control. A good AED will have built-in voice coaching so that an untrained lay user can provide life-saving intervention in an emergency.
Just having an AED in the home will help to secure your peace of mind. At the same time, remember that prevention is the best cure. To avoid sudden death from diabetes, make a firm commitment to your health and well-being. Even small steps can make a big difference in the long run.