Sudden cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death in the United States every year, but there are a lot of things you can do to prevent it before it occurs. If you have a personal or family history of heart disease—including coronary artery disease, being overweight, or hypertension—or even if you have no risk factors at all, understanding how to prevent sudden cardiac arrest could help you enjoy a longer, happier, and healthier life.
Step 1: Make Lifestyle Changes
The leading causes of sudden cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death are:
- Coronary artery disease, where the coronary arteries are narrowed or become clogged with plaque, impeding blood flow
- Previous heart attack
- Heart failure, in which the heart pumps less effectively
- Cardiomyopathies (a thickening of the heart muscle), either from birth or due to lifestyle factors
Most, if not all, of these diseases are caused or exacerbated by:
- Physical inactivity
- Poor diet
- Being overweight
- Recreational drug use
- Consuming too much alcohol
When you start to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle, it can slash your risk of sudden cardiac arrest almost in half—even if you have a family history of heart disease. Starting now, these actions can help to prevent sudden cardiac arrest:
- Start exercising to raise your heart rate, for at least 30 minutes, five times a week
- Maintain a heart-healthy diet
- Lose weight (if you’re overweight)
- Stop smoking and using tobacco products
- Cut down on alcohol consumption
As previously mentioned, recreational and prescription drugs including cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines, and opiates can increase your risk of heart issues. Refraining from using recreational drugs and using prescription medications under close medical supervision can help to reduce your risk. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have a family history of heart disease or SCA to help them prescribe the most appropriate medications.
Step 2: Identify Any Existing Heart Conditions
Sudden cardiac arrest, especially in children and athletes, can be caused by problems that aren’t related to lifestyle. Congenital (from birth) heart diseases such as cardiomyopathies, problems with the heart’s electrical system, heart valve problems, an abnormal heart structure, and long QT syndrome, as well as some muscular dystrophies, can cause sudden cardiac arrest, even if the individual is healthy. Moreover, latent genes associated with cardiomyopathies and long QT syndrome are often identified in survivors of unexplained SCA even if they didn’t display any abnormalities themselves.
The only way to prevent SCA in these cases is to undergo clinical screening and, if necessary, refrain from high-intensity sports. Many athletic associations now screen potential athletes for heart conditions, and your doctor will be able to tell you which tests are recommended given your family history and personal risk factors.
Step 3: Find Out the Root Cause of a Previous Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest
If you’ve already suffered a heart attack (blood clot in the heart) or cardiac arrest (the heart stops beating normally due to an electrical malfunction), your risk for SCA is higher than it is for someone who has never had a cardiac event.
As soon as you discover that you’ve had a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest, it’s essential to get tested to find out the cause. Depending on the cause, you may need to make lifestyle changes, start taking medications, have heart surgery, or have a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator implanted.
Who Should Get Clinical Screening?
Clinical screening can help you identify heart disease in the early stages so you can start taking measures to prevent its progression. This, in turn, can help you prevent cardiac arrest.
Everyone should have their blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels checked every 4 or 5 years, or annually if there are cardiovascular risk factors. If you have high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol, you may need to make changes to your diet and increase your physical activity.
In addition, you should have testing done if you have a personal or family history of:
- Cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease (also known as ischemic heart disease)
- Heart attack
- Heart rhythm disorders
- Cardiac arrest
- Sudden cardiac death or sudden death from an unknown cause
Even if you don’t have heart problems in your family, you should get urgent testing if you experience:
- Chest pain
- Tightness in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heartbeat or heart palpitations
- Lightheadedness or fainting episodes
- Pain in your shoulder and neck
- Suddenly feeling sick to your stomach
- Unexplained fatigue
If you experience more than one of these symptoms or any of these symptoms come on suddenly, it could be an emergency. Call 911 or ask someone to take you straight to the hospital.
Reducing your individual risk factors is important—in fact essential. However, it’s still best to be prepared for the worst. If sudden cardiac arrest occurs, you’ll need someone to perform CPR so that enough oxygen-rich blood gets to your brain and other vital organs to keep them alive until emergency medical services arrive. This is why it’s so important for everyone—especially family members of at-risk individuals—to learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to know where to find an automated external defibrillator (shopping malls, schools, hospitals, and police stations usually have them), or better yet, have one at home. If your heart suddenly stops beating and goes into ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia, a bystander can use the portable defibrillator to deliver an electric shock to help a normal rhythm restart. Early defibrillation has been shown to triple survival rates compared to CPR alone.
If you aren’t sure which AED to invest in, consider these user-friendly models:
- Philips HeartStart FRx and Philips HeartStart OnSite
- HeartSine Samaritan PAD 350P (semi-automatic), HeartSine Samaritan PAD 360P (fully automatic), or HeartSine Samaritan PAD 450P (semi-automatic with real-time CPR feedback)
- Defibtech Lifeline (includes visual flashing icons)
Reduce Your Risk and Be Prepared
Can cardiac arrest be prevented? In many cases, yes. Maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle, going for regular check-ups, and regular clinical screenings are your best lines of defense against SCA.
However, even if your risk is low, it’s still important to be prepared. Sudden cardiac arrest can affect anyone, anytime, and your chances of survival are much greater with immediate CPR and defibrillation. So always be prepared.