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Men Face Higher Odds of Sudden Cardiac Death

Study Shows Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death Is Greater for Men Than Women
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 17, 2009 (Orlando, Fla.) -- Men age 40 and over have a one in eight chance of suffering sudden cardiac death, and the risk is even higher for African-American men, a study shows.

For women 40 and over, the odds of suffering sudden cardiac death are one in 24, according to the study, the first to estimate lifetime risks of the condition.

"The lifetime risk for sudden cardiac death is greater than the lifetime risk for lung cancer, which is one in 12 for men, and one in 16 for colon cancer," says researcher Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, a cardiologist at Northwestern University in Chicago. In women, the lifetime risk of both lung and colon cancer is about one in 17, he says.

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA).

Nearly 300,000 Americans a year suffer sudden cardiac arrest, in which a person dies within minutes after an abrupt loss of heart function; victims typically have not been diagnosed with heart disease.

"It particularly devastating because it strikes without warning and can affect the young as well as old," Lloyd-Jones tells WebMD. "Public health and individual efforts should be aimed at preventing this devastating consequence of cardiovascular disease."

For the new analysis, the researchers pooled data on nearly 5,000 adults involved in three major heart studies.

Among the findings:

  • African-American men had about twice the risk of sudden cardiac death as white men at any given age.
  • Risks were similar for African-American and white women in all age groups.
  • Among the 300,000 annual cases, 3,000 to 5,000 occur among children, adolescents, and young adults. In contrast to older people, such cases are typically inherited.
  • The older the person, the lower the risk for sudden cardiac death.
  • People with risk factors for heart disease -- such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking cigarettes - are at significantly increased risk of sudden cardiac death.

"These are fairly astonishing data," says Muriel Jessup, MD, a cardiologist at University of Pennsylvania who headed the committee that chose the studies to highlight at the meeting.

The good news is that the same strategies for reducing the risk of heart disease should also reduce the risk of sudden death, she says.

Michael Ackerman, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says that in about half of cases, warning signs -- including frequent episodes of dizziness or fainting, or an unexplained drowning or car accident involving a family member -- can increase risk. "We can reduce sudden cardiac death right now just by being more aware of the warning signs."

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