The Difference Between Sudden Cardiac Arrest and Heart Failure

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Categories: Cardiac Arrest Education, Knowledge Base

Cardiac arrest and heart failure share several common characteristics. But even though the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they represent two very different conditions. In the U.S., a person dies every 36 seconds from cardiovascular disease, and these two conditions are often to blame. That’s why it’s important to understand the distinctions between cardiac arrest vs. heart failure and recognize the warning signs for each.

Cardiac Arrest vs Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a slow, progressive condition characterized by reduced heart function; cardiac arrest is a sudden condition where the heart stops beating completely. You may be at an elevated risk for both of these conditions if you’re over 65, you’re male, or you have a family history of heart disease.

What is Heart Failure?

Heart failure simply means that your heart isn’t pumping blood as effectively as it should. In other words, the heart is struggling to pump effectively enough to meet the body’s blood flow and oxygen needs. The three most common causes of heart failure are heart disease (particularly coronary artery disease), hypertension (high blood pressure), and diabetes.

It’s possible to live with CHF for years without even knowing you have the condition. That’s because the heart will try to compensate for its inability to adequately pump blood. For instance, the heart muscle may contract more widely to keep up with the demand (over time, this can cause the heart to enlarge). It may also develop more muscle mass to pump blood more quickly.

In addition, the body may try to compensate for the heart’s inability to pump adequate blood. The blood vessels may narrow to keep blood pressure elevated, or the body may divert blood away from the kidneys and other less essential organs.

These physiological coping mechanisms may work for a while, but they’re only temporary stopgaps. Gradually, the heart and other organs continue to break down. Eventually, the safeguards no longer work at all.

Heart Failure Symptoms

Heart failure can affect both sides of the heart, but the left side is usually impacted first. As the heart becomes less able to pump blood on its own, you may notice the common symptoms such as:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Shortness of breath (often while lying down)
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Persistent cough
  • White or pink mucus while coughing (from blood)
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles, or feet

If you notice any of the above symptoms, visit your doctor immediately. If you haven’t noticed symptoms but you’re at a high risk for heart failure, speak with a cardiologist.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Whereas heart failure is a slow, progressive disease, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) happens all at once. Cardiac arrest is an electrical malfunction that’s most commonly caused by a heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) like ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia. When a person goes into cardiac arrest, they abruptly lose all heart function, stop breathing, and become unconscious. The heart stops beating, and the body shuts down as a result.

Cardiac arrest shouldn’t be confused with a heart attack, which occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked, usually as a result of plaque buildup or a blood clot. Heart attacks usually don’t result in loss of consciousness.

The key take-away is that while both conditions above (as well as many others) can eventually result in or contribute to the onset of sudden cardiac arrest, SCA by definition is very different from either heart failure or a heart attack.

Sudden cardiac arrest often happens without warning. Because the heart stops beating, there is no blood supply to the brain and other vital organs. As a result, death can occur within 10 minutes without quick intervention. For every minute that passes, a patient’s chance of survival decreases by about 10%.

The best way to save a cardiac arrest victim is with immediate CPR and defibrillation. CPR helps to keep blood pumping to vital organs, and defibrillation can often restore the patient’s normal heart rhythm. With the quick assistance of a defibrillator, it’s possible for many cardiac arrest sufferers to make a complete or near-complete recovery.

This is why it’s so important to keep an automated external defibrillator if you or someone you love is at an elevated risk for cardiac arrest (see our recommended AED model for home). AEDs should also be kept in any location where a lot of people gather, including offices, churches, schools, gyms, and public facilities. These portable defibrillators are equipped with step-by-step voice coaching so that anyone can easily respond in an emergency. Industry-leading models like the HeartSine 350P and the Philips HeartStart OnSite are especially affordable and user-friendly.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest Symptoms

Cardiac arrest often comes on without warning. In some cases, though, there may be warning signs in the minutes or even days leading up to the event.

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Racing heart
  • Finally, loss of consciousness

As always, you should visit a doctor right away for any chest-related symptoms. Even if the problem isn’t related to cardiac arrest, it may indicate the presence of another serious heart problem.

Can Heart Failure Cause Sudden Cardiac Arrest?

While heart failure and cardiac arrest aren’t always connected, there is a strong correlation. A person with heart failure is up to 9 times more likely than a healthy person to experience the kinds of arrhythmias that lead to cardiac arrest. Likewise, a person who previously experienced cardiac arrest is at an elevated risk of developing heart failure.

For this reason, anyone currently living with heart failure should be especially diligent about cardiac arrest prevention. That means visiting your doctor regularly, maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle, and keeping an AED in the home.

If you do live with a potentially life-threatening arrhythmia like ventricular fibrillation, your doctor may even recommend an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) or wearable cardioverter defibrillator (WCD) to regulate your heart rhythm. These types of devices work similarly to pacemakers, but they specifically look for (and correct) dangerous arrhythmias.

Preventing Heart Failure and Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Heart disease, heart failure, heart attack, cardiac arrest…These terms all describe different conditions, but they all share a number of common risk factors, lifestyle factors, and prevention steps. While you can’t mitigate every risk factor (like age, gender, or genetics), you can take steps to keep your own risk at a minimum.

  • Maintain a heart-healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and keep salt and saturated fats to a minimum.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.
  • Avoid drinking excess alcohol.
  • Don’t smoke or use drugs.
  • Take steps to keep your weight within a healthy BMI range.
  • Visit your doctor at the first sign of unusual chest pain or other heart-related symptoms.

By taking these simple steps, you can reduce your risk of both heart failure and sudden cardiac arrest. And if you’re already at a high risk, your doctor can help you to establish a plan for long-term heart health.

Don’t take your heart health for granted. The heart is one of the most important organs you have, as it sustains all of the others. Taking care of it is one of the best investments you can make in your well-being.