Who Dies from Heart Disease? New Research Defines Those at Highest Risk

(TIME) — Heart disease is the leading killer of Americans, but many are still able to survive heart attacks. What determines who is able to overcome an attack and who succumbs? A team of researchers from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center report in the British Medical Journal’s  Health that they may have an answer. They identified a common set of risk factors that separate those who experience sudden cardiac death from those who have heart attacks.

Sudden cardiac death occurs when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating, which in turn prevents blood from flowing to the brain and essential organs, causing death within minutes. It differs slightly from a heart attack, during which blood flow to part of the heart is blocked.

“Since sudden cardiac death usually occurs before patients ever make it to the hospital, there is very little that can be done to save them,” said Dr. Elsayed Z. Soliman said. “Identifying specific predictors that separate the risk of sudden cardiac death from that of non-fatal or not immediately fatal heart attacks would be the first step to address this problem, which was the basis for our study.”

Heart attack and heart disease are both risk factors for sudden cardiac death, but now researchers have identified some additional characteristics that will help doctors to know which people are at greater risk of dying suddenly from heart problems. Using data culled from 18,497 participants in two longitudinal studies, the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) and the CHS (Cardiovascular Health Study), the scientists found several correlations that helped predict risk of sudden cardiac death — and others that helped predict the likelihood of coronary heart disease. It’s important to remember these associations are not causal — meaning their presence doesn’t mean cardiac death is inevitable, nor does it mean that people without the risk factors are protected from dying suddenly of heart failure. Many of the risk factors could be markers for other, hidden factors like overall lifestyle, access to health care and health insurance or chronic illness.


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