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Sudden Heart Death on the Rise in Teens, Young Adults

WebMD Health News

March 1, 2001 (San Antonio) -- Teens and young adults are dropping dead at an alarming rate -- and that rate is on the rise, according to a CDC study reported here at the annual American Heart Association epidemiology meeting.

"The really disturbing news is 3,000 deaths in young people should not be happening," George A. Mensah, MD, tells WebMD. "The numbers are increasing, the death rate is increasing -- it is our job to find out why this is happening."

Mensah, chief of the CDC's cardiovascular health branch, and co-workers examined the U.S. death-certificate registry for cause of death in people aged 15 to 34. "Traditionally, we have thought of heart disease as a disease of old folks," Mensah says. "We had anecdotal evidence of disease in young people, so we did a study to look at this."

The results: 23,320 young people died of sudden cardiac arrest between 1989 and 1996. The annual death rate jumped 10% during this time. Twice as many young men as young women had fatal heart attacks -- but the rate of increase was a frightening 30% among women. Young black men were three times as likely as young black women to die of sudden heart failure.

"We don't have any clinical information to help explain this jump in sudden cardiac death among women," Mensah says. "The absolute risk is lower in women than in men. So in healthy women who pick up risk factors, the impact of these risk factors must be very high."

The CDC study was not set up to identify risk factors. But heart-death risk factors for older people are known to be on the rise in younger people. These risks include obesity, high blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes.

"I think this is an important study because sudden cardiac death is always a tragedy, but especially when it occurs in young people," says Rose Marie Robertson, MD, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt and president of the American Heart Association. "Why this is we don't know, and we need to understand this in more detail.

"We need not only to understand the impact of increasing risk factors, but also to understand if these are children particularly susceptible to other agents they may be taking, such as prescribed or unprescribed drugs," Robertson says.

Despite news reports of young athletes dropping dead on the track field or basketball court, Mensah says that young athletes are much less likely to die of heart attacks than their couch-potato peers. He warns that people unused to physical exercise should not suddenly attempt strenuous activities.

"Until we know definitively what causes sudden cardiac death in young people, our advice really boils down to the same message we give older adults," Mensah says. "The key is 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise most days of the week, a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables, avoiding or quitting smoking, and -- in individuals with high blood pressure or diabetes -- controlling underlying disease."

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