Sudden cardiac death (SCD) is a sudden, unexpected death caused by loss of heart function (sudden cardiac arrest). It is responsible for most ''natural deaths'' in the U.S., with about 325,000 adults dying each year. SCD is responsible for half of all heart disease deaths.
SCD occurs most frequently in adults; the risk rises with age. SCD affects men twice as often as it does women. SCD is rare in children, affecting only one to two per 100,000 children each year.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask our experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics. In our September 2011 issue, we gave a reader's question about preventing heart disease to James Beckerman, MD, WebMD's heart health expert.
Q : Heart disease runs in my family. What can I really do now to help prevent it?
A : Cut out these five things to greatly reduce your risk:
Smoking (or hanging around with smokers). Smoking is the most dangerous -- yet most reversible...
Sudden cardiac arrest can be reversed if treated within the first few minutes. The American Heart Association promotes these four steps, called ''the chain of survival:"
Early Access to Care. Quick contact with emergency care is essential. Call 911 (in most communities) or your local emergency number immediately.
Early Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR). Learning CPR is the greatest gift you can give your family and friends. If performed properly (see below), CPR can help save a life until emergency medical help arrives.
Early Defibrillation. In most adults, sudden cardiac death is related to ventricular fibrillation. Quick defibrillation (delivery of an electrical shock) is necessary to return the heart rhythm to a normal heartbeat. Many public places -- such as malls, golf courses, and airports -- have automated external defibrillators (AEDs; see below) available for use in emergency situations.
Early Advanced Care. After successful defibrillation, most patients require hospital care to treat and prevent future events.
These four steps can increase survival as much as 90% if initiated within the first minutes after sudden cardiac arrest. Survival decreases by about 10% each minute longer.
What Is CPR?
CPR is an emergency technique used to help someone whose heart and/or breathing has stopped.
When a person's heart stops, blood stops circulating throughout the body. If a person stops breathing, the blood can't get oxygen. Therefore, it is vital for people in this emergency situation to receive medical treatment, such as CPR, within the first few minutes of the event.
By administering a combination of manual chest compressions and artificial, or "mouth-to-mouth," respiration, the rescuer can breathe for the victim and help circulate some of the blood throughout his or her body.
CPR does not restart a heart that has stopped, but it can keep a victim alive until more aggressive treatment (defibrillation) can be administered.
CPR is not difficult to learn, and many organizations offer courses in CPR, including the American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, local community centers, health clubs, and YMCAs.
What Is an AED?
An AED -- which stands for automatic external defibrillator -- is a device used to administer an electric shock through the chest wall to the heart. The device has built-in computers that assess the victim's heart rhythm, judge whether defibrillation is needed, and then administer the shock. Audible and/or visual prompts guide the user through the process.
Who Can Use an AED?
Most AEDs are designed to be used by non-medical people such as fire department personnel, police officers, lifeguards, flight attendants, security guards, teachers, and even family members of people at high risk of sudden cardiac death.
The goal is to provide access to defibrillation when needed as quickly as possible. CPR along with AEDs can dramatically increase survival rates for sudden cardiac arrest.
Can an AED Shock a Person Who Is Not in Cardiac Arrest?
No. An AED treats only a heart in an abnormal rhythm. If a person is in cardiac arrest without such a rhythm, the heart will not respond to electric currents. CPR should be administered until medical help arrives.