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Sudden cardiac death also known as sudden cardiac arrest is when the heart suddenly stops pumping. 

What is a sudden cardiac arrest? 

Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart's electrical system malfunctions. It is not a heart attack! A heart attack is when a blockage in a blood vessel interrupts the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart causing the death of the heart muscle. 

SCA occurs when there is an electrical problem, and a heart attack occurs when there is a circulation problem. 


​The most common cause of cardiac arrest is a heart rhythm disorder or arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation (VF). The heart has a natural pacemaker, which triggers each heartbeat sending electrical impulses along various pathways in the heart, causing a contraction in normal sinus rhythm. When the contraction occurs, blood flows throughout the body.


However, in ventricular fibrillation, the electric signals controlling the heart because rapid and chaotic. Due to this, the lower chambers of the heart, the ventricles, quiver, or fibrillate instead of contracting, and they no longer pump blood throughout the body. When blood stops flowing normally, the brain becomes starved for oxygen, and the person loses consciousness in seconds. Unless the victim receives an emergency shock delivered to the heart using an automated external defibrillator (AED), death will occur within minutes. More than 70% of ventricular fibrillation victims die before ever reaching the hospital.

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Who is at risk for sudden cardiac arrest? 

Heart conditions that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest:

  • Coronary Artery Disease

  • Heart attack 

  • Enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy)

  • Valvular heart disease

  • Congenital heart disease

  • Electrical problems in the heart


Risk factors for sudden cardiac arrest: 

  • A family history of coronary artery disease

  • Smoking

  • High blood pressure (Hypertension)

  • High cholesterol (Hyperlipidemia)

  • Obesity

  • Diabetes

  • A sedentary lifestyle

Other factors that can increase your risk include: 

  • A previous episode of cardiac arrest, family history of cardiac arrest 

  • Previous history of a heart attack

  • Personal or family history of other forms of heart disease

  • Age-- the incidence of SCA increases with age

  • Being male

  • Using illegal drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines

  • Nutritional imbalance, such as low potassium or magnesium levels

  • Obstructive sleep apnea

  • Chronic kidney disease

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Learn more about your risk for sudden cardiac arrest

Heart Rythm Society has created a sudden cardiac arrest risk assessment. This risk assessment is purely informational, please consult with your physician regarding the results of the assessment. 

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