Every year in the U.S., more than 356,000 people of all ages suffer sudden cardiac arrest at home, at work, or while otherwise going about their daily lives. That’s almost 1,000 people a day. Nearly 90 percent are fatal.
What is Cardiac Arrest? Your heart runs on electrical signals. A small cluster of specialized cells called the sinus node, known as the “pacemaker of the heart,” generates nerve impulses that drive the coordinated contractions of the rest of the heart muscle. While a heart attack is caused by blockage of blood flow to part of the heart muscle, sudden cardiac arrest is caused by an electrical disturbance that interrupts those nerve impulses and causes the heart to stop beating.
Be Heart Healthy: Healthy lifestyle choices cannot prevent all cardiac events, but following a healthy dietary pattern, being physically active, avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, getting adequate sleep, managing stress, and following your healthcare provider’s instructions for managing health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, can help.
Learn CPR: Performing CPR can triple a person’s chances of survival after cardiac arrest. Chest compression-only CPR, without the rescue breath, is now the evidence-supported standard. Use of an AED along with CPR, where available, significantly increases cardiac arrest survival.
Cardiac arrest is marked by loss of consciousness, absence of breathing, and lack of a pulse. At least half the time there are no symptoms before the heart stops beating, although some people have chest pain, light-headedness, vomiting, or palpitations (hard, fast, or irregular heartbeats).
Sometimes abnormalities or conditions present at birth are the cause of cardiac arrest, but heart attacks and coronary heart disease (narrowing of the blood vessels supplying the heart) can also lead to irregular heart rhythms that trigger cardiac arrest.
While CPR used to involve a combination of chest compressions and rescue breathing, guidelines now recommend just focusing on pumping the heart, rather than blowing air into the individual’s mouth.
“For most bystanders in good health, performing ‘hands only’ CPR after calling 911 shouldn’t be associated with any personal risk,” according to Amanda Vest, MD, medical director of the Cardiac Transplantation Program at Tufts Medical Center.
You may have seen automated external defibrillators, known as an AEDs, attached to a wall in public locations. AED devices analyze the rhythm of the heart and provide a shock when necessary to try to restore a normal heartbeat. Use of an AED along with CPR can significantly increase the survival of someone experiencing sudden cardiac arrest. “Using an AED is really easy,” says Vest. “Simply turn it on and follow the prompts.”
Contact the American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, or your local hospital for help finding CPR/AED training near you. A variety of courses are available online, in-person, or a combination of both. Training is just a few hours and is free or low cost. “In my opinion, everyone in the population should be trained,” says Vest. To find a free or low-cost CPR class, go to cpr.heart.org or redcross.org/take-a-class/cpr.
What to Do. Taking care of your cardiovascular health reduces your risk of cardiac arrest, along with heart attack, stroke, and vascular dementia. That means eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, not smoking, getting adequate sleep, avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol, and managing stress, diabetes, high blood pressure, and dyslipidemia (abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels) as directed by your healthcare provider. A heart-healthy dietary pattern includes plenty of unprocessed or minimally processed plant foods (fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and whole grains), along with seafood, yogurt, and lean cuts of poultry and meats. It limits or avoids processed meats (like hot dogs, sausage, and lunchmeats), high sodium foods, added sugars, and highly processed foods (especially those made with refined grains).
These healthy lifestyle choices can help protect you from sudden cardiac arrest. If you want to be empowered to save others, see the “Save a Life—It’s in Your Hands” box for information on learning cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Learning CPR is especially important if you live with or spend time with children, older adults, or someone with a history of heart disease.