Sudden Cardiac Arrest: Higher in Blacks?

A new study finds blacks are more likely to die from it and less likely to know how to prevent it.

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(The Root) — Kimberli Taylor-Clarke and her husband, Khary, were a love match. They were college sweethearts, still together after 11 years and happily raising their first child. Khary adored his family, but he also let Kimberli know that at least four nights a week, he had an appointment.

“That was his way,” Taylor-Clarke recalls, “of letting me know he was going to find a basketball game somewhere for his evening workout.” So, on a hot July night, when the young couple were still unpacking boxes at their new Nashville home, Khary took a break and announced that he was off to shoot some hoops with friends.

“He was gone about two hours, when my phone rang,” says Taylor-Clarke, her voice catching in her throat. “It’s still tough to talk about, even though it’s been four years. When Khary’s friend called and told me he had passed out on the basketball court, I was so sure that nothing was wrong, I just said, ‘Well, did he get up yet?’ When he replied that Khary was still on the floor, as a physician, I suddenly knew that something was terribly wrong.”

About 20 minutes later, Khary Clarke, 33, passed away at a nearby hospital from sudden cardiac arrest. Kimberli Taylor-Clarke, a cardiologist, was shocked because she could not understand how her husband, whom she described as “an incredibly fit health nut, who was raised a vegetarian, played ball and worked out several days a week,” could have died from a heart problem.

Hidden Risks

SCA is a shockingly common form of heart failure that takes a life every 90 seconds. Yet while SCA is unpredictable, it may be preventable in more than 75 percent of cases, if you are aware of your risks. The problem is, says Walter Clair, M.D., a cardiologist at Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute in Nashville, “most Americans and an even larger number of African Americans are unaware of their SCA risk.”

In Khary Clarke’s case, the clues that might have saved him were hidden in his family’s history. “Afterward, I discovered there were many men in Khary’s family who had died suddenly from heart disease,” Taylor-Clarke says. “An examination also revealed that Khary had a valvular problem in his heart that had never been diagnosed.” Khary’s regular physicals, even during his years playing professional ball, were not comprehensive enough to reveal a ventricular disorder in his heart. As surprising as Clarke’s story may seem, it is actually far too common.

Who Gets SCA

In a survey released on Oct. 17, the Heart Rhythm Society, along with Ipsos Healthcare, reported that SCA claims 350,000 lives in the United States each year, at a rate of nearly 1,000 people per day. Despite the fact that SCA is a leading cause of death in the United States, only 18 percent of African Americans were aware of the condition, compared with 24 percent of the larger population. Physicians also demonstrated a startling lack of knowledge about SCA, with 90 percent of African Americans saying their doctors had never talked to them about their possible SCA risk.

Because of a cascade of risk factors — higher rates (pdf) of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity and other health problems — African Americans also have a higher risk of SCA. “African Americans’ increased chances of losing their lives to SCA may also be attributed to a lack of access to proper care,” Clair adds. The Heart Rhythm Society-Ipsos survey illustrates his point. The survey found that even when African Americans were diagnosed with a problem that might lead to SCA, they were less likely to be given the optimum preventive treatment: an implanted defibrillator (a device to regulate the heart’s rhythm) or appropriate medications.