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How to Prevent Cardiac Arrest– 10 Preventative Actions to Safeguard Your Heart

Doctor listening to patient's heartbeat during home visit - wearing face mask

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) is an enormous healthcare problem, claiming the lives of over 350,000 people every year in the United States alonethousands of whom are children. 

SCA is a life threatening emergency where the heart unexpectedly stops beating, or beats irregularly. It occurs when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions, disrupting its ability to pump blood effectively throughout the body. Most cardiac arrests are caused by abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), but coronary heart disease, cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart), congenital heart conditions, heart failure, and serious bodily trauma can also lead to cardiac arrest.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 6.2 million Americans live with heart failure. Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of mortality in the United States, impacting about 1 in every 20 adults. Given the extensiveness of serious heart conditions in this country, many of which put people at a higher risk for cardiac arrest, it’s important to understand how to prevent SCA.

The scary truth is that SCA impacts people of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and activity levels, and, as you may have guessed from the name, often happens suddenly. Not only can the onset of cardiac arrest happen with little to no warning, but treating cardiac arrest promptly is crucial due to its life-threatening nature. Immediate intervention with early CPR and quick defibrillation with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) significantly increases the chances of patient survival. For every minute someone in cardiac arrest does not receive help, their chances of survival decrease by 7-10%

While SCA is unpredictable, there are a number of very real risk factors you can manage in order to lower your chances of experiencing cardiac arrest. Read on to learn how to prevent cardiac arrest, and how 10 healthy lifestyle choices can help keep your heart safe. 

Signs & Symptoms of Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Quick diagnosis and recognition of SCA symptoms is essential to give someone in cardiac arrest the best chances of survival. Just a few seconds after SCA begins, a person may go unconscious, become unresponsive, and stop breathing normally–all of which are signals to seek medical attention and call for emergency assistance (dial 911) immediately.

In certain cases of SCA, a person may not exhibit any symptoms before they go unconscious. However, a 2022 study found that 65% of SCA patients do present warning signs before their cardiac arrest. Most often, these symptoms included: 

  • Shortness of Breath or Labored Breathing
  • Chest Pain
  • Loss of Consciousness
  • Heart Palpitations (fast or pounding heartbeat)
  • Dizziness or Lightheadedness

Do not ignore these symptoms. People who seek medical care for warning signs of SCA are more likely to survive.

How to Prevent Cardiac Arrest

Preventing SCA requires understanding your risk factors, and it can look different for people who are generally in good health vs. those who are at a higher risk for cardiac arrest, whether it be due to a genetic condition, family history, or prior cardiac arrest. 

Explore the actionable guidelines below to lower your risk of cardiac arrest by adopting a healthy lifestyle. 

  • Manage Stress
how to prevent cardiac arrest

Stress is a big risk factor that is often overlooked and under-appreciated when it comes to treating physical and mental health. However, since the early 2000s, research from Duke University, The American Journal of Cardiology, and Harvard Medical School have found increased linkage between stress and cardiovascular symptoms, especially the risk of heart attack (a condition that can lead to cardiac arrest). The American Heart Association also acknowledges that, “Stress may contribute to poor health behaviors linked to increased risk for heart disease and stroke, such as: smoking, overeating, lack of physical activity, unhealthy diet, and not taking medications as prescribed,” which may negatively impact physical health and increase the risk of cardiac arrest. 

  • Quit Smoking & Using Tobacco Products

Quitting smoking is a critical part of investing in better long term health outcomes for yourself and those around you. The CDC warns that smoking damages blood vessels, increases blood pressure, reduces oxygen levels in the blood, and promotes the development of fatty deposits in the arteries–none of which are good for the heart. Overtime, quitting smoking can lower the chances of developing heart disease, decrease the risk of blood clots, and ultimately help to safeguard against cardiac arrest. 

  • Adopt a Healthy Diet

It probably comes as no surprise that eating nutrient rich foods is one of the best ways to avoid cardiovascular disease and support a healthy lifestyle. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, fish (especially salmon, trout, and others with omega-3 fatty acids), lean cuts of meat, and whole grains provide a strong foundation for eating well. 

prevent cardiac arrest

Limiting foods that have high amounts of sodium (salt) and saturated fats (i.e. full fat dairy products, whole milk, margarine, fried fast food, and high fat cuts of meat) is crucial to maintaining a healthy diet. As well, eating healthy foods reduces the risk of developing or worsening other risk factors for cardiac arrest, such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol. 

  • Limit Alcohol Intake

Several studies have shown that excessive amounts of alcohol and binge drinking have been linked to an increased risk in cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, and cardiomyopathy. By moderating your alcohol intake, you can help lower these risk factors for cardiac arrest and avoid other health complications that come with excessive drinking habits, like obesity and substance abuse. 

  • Exercise & Regulate Weight 

Maintaining a healthy weight helps promote a lifestyle that poses less risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. By maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet (full of the foods mentioned above!) and regular exercise, you can reduce the burden on your heart, improve cardiovascular health, and decrease the likelihood of experiencing a cardiac emergency. Managing weight also helps control cholesterol and blood sugar levels, further promoting heart health. 

  • Screen For Family History of SCA

Having a close (first-degree) relative who has experienced cardiac arrest increases the risk for others in the family. By getting a heart screening to check your genetic predisposition, you can take steps ahead of time to reduce risks and protect yourself. Knowing your family’s cardiac history and the factors that increase the risk of SCA allows you to make smart choices and take precautions to avoid a cardiac arrest.

  • Regular Medical Checkup for Existing Heart Conditions 

Coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, and other structural abnormalities of the heart can increase the risk of cardiac arrest. There are also conditions people can be born with, such as congenital heart disease, that contribute to higher risks for cardiac emergencies. By receiving regular medical checkups (including heart screenings), you have a better chance of identifying any underlying heart conditions early on so that you can treat them effectively! Early detection allows for appropriate management, which can include medication, helpful lifestyle changes, and medical interventions to prevent cardiac arrest. 

  • Prepare Yourself: Know CPR & How to Use an AED 

Knowing how and when to perform CPR and use an AED is crucial to preventing sudden cardiac death. Since over 70% of SCAs happen in the home, there’s a good chance that if you ever need to perform CPR and use an AED, it will be to save the life of someone you love.

CPR is an emergency lifesaving technique that anyone can learn, and an AED is a publicly accessible device that is designed to be used effectively without any training. Studies have shown that even children can use AEDs effectively, and deliver a lifesaving shock at speeds not too far behind medically trained professionals. 

Once the signs and symptoms of SCA are recognized, immediate CPR and an early shock (defibrillation) with an AED provide the patient with the best chances of survival. Read our full CPR guide here. 

High Risk Factors for Sudden Cardiac Arrest

In addition to congenital heart conditions (conditions that people are born with), there are other health complications that can increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing a cardiac arrest. Some of these risk factors include diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary heart disease.

Unfortunately, people who have survived cardiac arrest are at an elevated risk of experiencing another one. For patients who survive SCA, doctors may recommend surgery to install an ICD, or implantable cardioverter defibrillator based on the root cause of the cardiac arrest. An ICD is a battery-powered device that is placed in the chest and meant to identify and terminate irregular heartbeats. It will deliver an electric shock, not unlike the lifesaving shock that an automated external defibrillator would provide. ICD devices can help prevent sudden cardiac death in patients who have survived SCA before, and are, therefore, a common preventative measure for people at higher risk. 

Conclusion

Despite the hundreds of thousands of people who lose their lives in the US every year to SCA, cardiac arrest is a commonly misunderstood medical condition that is not always talked about accurately in mass media–when and if it’s discussed at all! 

The lack of accurate representation for SCA contributes to a culture of misinformation and powerlessness around what we can do as individuals to protect ourselves against cardiac arrest. Prevention starts with awareness and action, so by making conscious choices to support heart health, we can empower ourselves to lead healthier lives. Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of SCA, perform CPR, and use an AED are also crucial steps in helping to positively contribute to a culture of response, where no witnessed cardiac arrest goes untreated.

How to Prevent Cardiac Arrest FAQs

What is the average age of cardiac arrest? 

While SCA affects people of all ages, including young children, cardiac arrest occurs most frequently in adults between 35 and 45 years old. In this patient population (people in their mid-30s and mid-40s), the cause of SCA is often related to coronary artery disease. 

Can cardiac arrest happen in sleep? 

Yes, cardiac arrest can occur while someone is asleep, which is particularly dangerous because there is often less of a chance that the arrest will be witnessed by another person. 

Will Flanary, M.D., a young and healthy Ophthalmologist, comedian, and TikTok sensation, suffered a Sudden Cardiac Arrest in May of 2020. His wife, Kristin Flanary, saved his life by providing 10 minutes of CPR until EMS arrived and delivered six shocks with an AED. 

What is the survival rate of cardiac arrest?

In the United States, out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) survival rates are estimated to hover between 10-11%; said another way, about 90% of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests are fatal.  However, these survival rates have increased slightly over the last decade. 

Can cardiac arrest be caused by lack of oxygen?

Yes, cardiac arrest can be caused by a lack of oxygen. When there is not enough oxygen supply to the heart muscle, it can lead to a condition called hypoxia, which can disrupt the heart’s electrical system and lead to an abnormal rhythm (an arrhythmia). Life threatening arrhythmias, such as ventricular fibrillation, can trigger a cardiac arrest. 

What is the most common cause of sudden cardiac death? 

The most common cause of sudden cardiac death is coronary artery disease (CAD), which occurs when the arteries supplying blood to the heart become narrowed or blocked. CAD can lead to a heart attack or arrhythmias, which can ultimately result in sudden cardiac death.  

Where can I learn more about how to prevent cardiac arrest?

Explore the links below to learn more about this topic!

Johns Hopkins Medicine

Mayo Clinic

Harvard Health

National Library of Medicine

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