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New Research Dispels Sudden Cardiac Death Myth

Tim Boyer's picture

One of the myths of death from sudden cardiac arrest in people under 40 is that in many cases it is precipitated by vigorous exercise. However, according to research presented this week at the 2012 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, sudden death due to cardiac arrest is actually relatively rare when a person is exercising or performing during a sporting event.

Possibly one of the most seemingly supportive examples linking sudden and unexpected cardiac death with exercise can be traced to the early 1980’s when jogging fitness guru James Fixx, author of the best seller ''The Complete Book of Running'' died suddenly at age 52 while jogging in Vermont.

From all outward appearances, Mr. Fixx was the picture of health as he led a running revolution that kick-started the design and manufacture of specialized (and over-priced) running shoes that remains with us today. James Fixx was a model for many as he showed that transitioning from an unhealthy, obese man with a 2-pack per day nicotine habit into a trim, middle-aged athlete was possible through exercise one step at a time.

Like Fixx’s death in the early 80’s, today the news media continues to focus on the deaths of relatively young athletes when the death happens on the court or playing field during a game. According to a news release by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Dr. Andrew Krahn of the University of British Columbia and co-author of the study presented at the 2012 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, explains such news reports add to the misperception the public has with exercise and cardiac arrest.

"Put it this way: If you have a 13-year-old kid who is not the star athlete who dies at home watching TV, it doesn't make the news," said Dr. Krahn. "But if the same kid is a high school quarterback or hockey star, then it's covered."

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By reviewing coroners' reports tallying a total of 174 cases of sudden cardiac death in victims between ages 2 and 40 in 2008 in Ontario, Dr. Krahn and a team of researchers determined that 72% occurred at home rather than on a playing field or gymnasium. Furthermore, of the deaths that occurred during a game or vigorous exercise, 33% were adolescents and 9% were adults. According to Dr. Krahn, this data shows that the myth that sudden cardiac death often takes place during rigorous physical activity is just that—a myth.

More importantly, what the study indicates is that more is needed to be done to find ways to prevent early deaths. For now, because there is no simple and inexpensive medical examination that can be given to everyone to warn about the possibility of an impending heart attack in the young, the best solution appears to be awareness and preparedness.

"This research gives us an idea of the scope of the problem—there are almost 200 young people who die suddenly every year in Ontario. A good proportion of them have unrecognized heart disease. So the question is: How can we catch this before it happens? I would advocate for careful screening of people who faint, using questionnaires and education of healthcare professionals so that when warning signs present themselves, they recognize them and this information gets passed on to the right people," says Dr. Krahn.

Dr. Krahn and others involved in cardiac healthcare also advocate the idea that widespread training in CPR and the use of Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs) can and has saved lives. An example from the Heart and Stroke Foundation news release is made when NHL hockey player Brett MacLean suffered a cardiac arrest during a pick-up game with friends who immediately performed CPR on the ice, while a spectator retrieved an AED that was previously installed at the arena. Their concerted efforts resulted in MacLean’s survival and recovery.

According to Dr. Beth Abramson, a Heart and Stroke Foundation researcher, "Our goal is to make AEDs as available as fire extinguishers in public places from Yellowknife to St. John's. The odds of surviving a cardiac arrest can increase to up to 75 per cent when early CPR is used in combination with an AED in the first few minutes."

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile

Reference: Heart and Stroke Foundation