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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Many African Americans may also be less concerned about their risk of SCA because they think it’s the same as a heart attack, but that’s not the case. Understanding how SCA is different can help save lives. “Think of it this way,” Clair says. “A heart attack is essentially a plumbing problem. It occurs because one or more of the blood vessels that bring blood to the heart are clogged. During a heart attack, the heart may continue beating.” A heart attack may also be mild, moderate or severe, and many people survive. 

“Sudden cardiac arrest is an electrical problem that interrupts the rhythm of the heart,” Clair explains. “When it occurs, the heart stops beating and stops pumping blood to the rest of the body. Think of it as the electricity being turned off in the body.” And only about 5 percent of SCA victims survive.

Every Minute Counts

“With sudden cardiac arrest, receiving proper treatment within four to six minutes is critical,”  Clair warns. “Starting cardiopulmonary resuscitation or defibrillation immediately can restore the heart’s proper rhythm. Hospital care is still necessary because the effect may only be temporary — but it may be enough to save a life.”

“The other players with my husband that night were so shocked that they did not know what to do,” Taylor-Clarke recalls. “But every minute that you delay, the person who has experienced SCA is losing valuable time.” Advocating for placing portable defibrillators around your community (“They can be operated by a fourth-grader,” Clair says) or learning and encouraging others to learn CPR is also a great help.

“Possible warning signs of SCA include fainting, feeling light-headed or experiencing lapses in memory,” Clair says. “Unlike a person who has had a heart attack, a person who has experienced SCA will probably not be breathing at all. They may also have a faint to nonexistent pulse.”

Advocacy and Education Reduce Risk

As frightening as SCA may be, Clair explains, “our goal is to arm people, not alarm people. This study shows us that teaching people about SCA, how to ask for proper medical tests and  practice prevention can lower rates.”

Research conducted by SUNY Downstate cardiologist Judith Mitchell did find that when African Americans with heart abnormalities received defibrillators, their SCA survival rates were similar to those of other groups. In other words, survival of SCA is not dependent on race; it’s dependent on getting the proper treatment.

“Having information about family risk is also important,” advises Shaun Robinson, a correspondent for Access Hollywood and spokesperson for the Heart Rhythm Society and Association of Black Cardiologists’ Arrest the Risk campaign to help prevent SCA. “I’m speaking out because I’ve lost so many people in my own family to heart disease. I want to encourage people to take charge of their risks.”

Historic issues causing distrust may keep African Americans out of the health care system, but this is one case where we really must break down that barrier,” Taylor-Clarke says. “This is an epidemic, and we have to work together in our community to bring it to an end.”

Sheree Crute is a journalist who specializes in health and medicine.