Understanding Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Young Adults

Sudden death in young people is rare, but those at risk can take precautions. Find out more about the risk factors, causes and treatments.

How common is sudden cardiac death in young people?

Most sudden cardiac deaths are in older adults, particularly those with heart disease. Yet sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes. Estimates vary, but some reports suggest that about 1 in 50,000 to 1 in 80,000 young athletes die of sudden cardiac death each year.

What is the difference between sudden cardiac arrest and heart attack?

Sudden cardiac arrest and heart attack are often used interchangeably, but they are actually two different conditions. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to the heart is blocked, leading to damage to the heart muscle. Sudden cardiac arrest, on the other hand, occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating, leading to a lack of blood flow to the brain and other vital organs.

Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is a medical emergency that occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. It can happen to anyone, regardless of age or health status, and often without warning. Understanding the symptoms of SCA is crucial because prompt treatment can save lives.

In many cases, SCA occurs with no prior symptoms or warning signs. However, in some cases, the following symptoms may be present:

  1. Chest pain or discomfort: Chest pain is a common symptom of SCA. The pain may feel like a squeezing, pressure, or tightness in the chest.
  2. Shortness of breath: Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath is another common symptom of SCA. It may feel like you are unable to get enough air, or like you are suffocating.
  3. Loss of consciousness: SCA often results in sudden loss of consciousness, sometimes without warning. The person may collapse and stop breathing.
  4. Weakness or dizziness: SCA can cause weakness or dizziness, which may lead to loss of balance or falls.
  5. Palpitations: Some people experience a rapid, irregular heartbeat or palpitations before an episode of SCA.

Can sudden cardiac arrest occur in a healthy person?


Yes, sudden cardiac arrest can occur in a healthy person. While certain factors such as genetics and lifestyle can increase the risk of sudden cardiac arrest, the condition can also occur without any known underlying conditions.

Risk factors for sudden cardiac death that should prompt additional testing:

Family history of unexpected or unexplained sudden death in an otherwise healthy family member under age 50.

  • A family member with an inherited heart muscle or electrical problem
  • Chest pain during exercise
  • An abnormal heart rate or rhythm with an unknown cause
  • Fainting/passing out or seizure without warning or during exercise
  • Being born with a congenital heart defect (including those surgically repaired)

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.



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