Beloved movie star Burt Reynolds died recently at age 82 from cardiac arrest, one of the leading causes of death in the United States. What makes cardiac arrest so dangerous is the sudden and drastic nature of its effects, requiring quick medical attention to survive. Though it’s often believed to be the same thing as a heart attack, the two have key differences.
Being able to identify cardiac arrest risk factors and early signs in yourself and your loved ones could help you save a life. To learn more about this condition, we consulted Dr. Rajesh Shah, board-certified interventional cardiologist and ACS director at Florida Hospital.
Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack
Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart malfunctions and stops beating unexpectedly. It’s triggered by an electrical failure in the heart and causes an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia. A person suffering from cardiac arrest may become unresponsive, is unable to breathe or is gasping for air.
- Sudden collapse
- No pulse or breathing
- Loss of consciousness
“Some people have a heart attack with a blocked artery which results in cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Shah. “Blood flow is not there, rhythm problems occur and the heart stops.”
Heart attacks are one cause of cardiac arrest, but causes can also be familial or genetic. Or even more rarely, incidental.
“I remember one case I had where someone got hit in the chest and it caused their heart to stop,” Dr. Shah said. “So there are many causes of cardiac arrest, but the most common is heart attack.”
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Unlike a cardiac arrest, heart attacks are a circulation of blood flow problem — the heart doesn’t actually stop. A blocked artery prevents blood from flowing freely to portions of the heart and if blood is not able to reach that area after a period of time, the artery begins to die.
- Tightness, squeezing, pain or pressure in the chest/upper body (this feeling may go away and then come back)
- Shortness of breath
- Sweating/cold sweats
- Trouble Sleeping
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, neck, jaw or stomach
Most often, these symptoms will be subtle and may go undetected because they creep up slowly, sometimes lasting for days or even weeks before the attack. Many people brush off symptoms as the flu, stress or simply feeling “under the weather,” but it’s best to seek help to be sure.
“Not all heart attacks lead to cardiac arrest,” said Dr. Shah. “Generally your survival rate with a heart attack is about 97-98 percent; with cardiac arrest your survival rate is only about 50 percent.”
Cardiac arrest occurs in both children and adults, but much more commonly in adults. And there could be several contributing factors to future cardiac arrest.
“Factors include one’s age, structural problems with the heart — young kids will sometimes have very thick hearts or hearts that are not well-developed that can make them predisposed to some electrical problems,” says. Dr. Shah. “And whether you’re young or old, sometimes your heart is bigger, which can predispose you to electrical arrhythmias that lead to cardiac arrest.”
“If you’ve had a heart attack and a vessel or artery gets blocked off, a large part of the muscle can be dead or damaged which also increases the likelihood of an arrhythmia causing sudden death.”
Dr. Shah advised that adults should stay on top of their routine checkups and blood pressure to get ahead of a potential arrhythmia. If a parent experiences a heart issue in his or her life, genetic tests can also be performed on any children to ensure their risk factors are caught early.
Don’t Hesitate to Seek Help
Early intervention is key to avoiding what might become deadly cardiac arrest, says Dr. Shah.
“The earliest things to look for might be things you can’t necessarily see or feel, like hypertension and diabetes, but also weight and previous health history. It’s important to get your checkups, your bloodwork, your blood pressure done to look for any signs. If you control the risk factors, your outcome is much better.”
The majority of cardiac arrests occur at home, as Reynolds’ did. Performing CPR or even just compressions to the chest can improve the chances of survival until emergency medical teams arrive.
If you suspect you or a loved one is having a heart attack or cardiac arrest, call 911. It’s best to call for emergency help than to risk underestimating your symptoms.
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