Cardiac Arrest
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Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac Arrest Causes and Risk Factors

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What causes cardiac arrest?

Irregular heart rhythms called arrhythmias cause cardiac arrest. Learn more about the types of arrhythmias that can lead to cardiac arrest.

In children, cardiac arrest can occur after respiratory arrest (when breathing has stopped) due to choking or drowning.

Sometimes the cause of a cardiac arrest is not known.

What can trigger a cardiac arrest?

Sometimes an activity or behavior triggers a cardiac arrest. Triggering events are more common in people who have heart conditions or other risk factors.

Possible triggers include:,

  • Heavy alcohol use or binge drinking
  • Physical exertion or physical stress, including competitive sports: In 1 out of 3 cardiac arrests in athletes, the event occurred while they were resting or sleeping after activity. Some types of cardiomyopathy, and rarely, conduction disorders such as long QT syndrome, can cause cardiac arrest during exercise or sleep. However, regular physical activity lowers the risk of cardiac arrest.
  • Recent use of cocaine, amphetamines, or marijuana
  • Drinking too much coffee: This is more common in people who do not regularly drink coffee. Regular coffee drinkers should try to limit consumption to no more than six 5-ounce cups per day. Getting too much caffeine in powders, pills, or energy drinks can also lead to cardiac arrest.
  • Severe emotional stress in the prior month
  • Influenza (flu) infection in the prior month

Main triggers of cardiac arrest

Vigorous physical activity for people, especially men, who do not exercise regularly, and alcohol misuse are most often linked with cardiac arrest. About 2 in 20 cardiac arrests are linked with physical exertion and up to 3 in 20 cardiac arrests are linked with alcohol.

What raises the risk of cardiac arrest?

Many health conditions increase the risk of cardiac arrest. You and your healthcare providers can work as a team to treat or eliminate many risk factors and raise your chances of living a long, healthy life. Some risk factors, like inherited cardiomyopathies or arrhythmias, cannot be changed, but you can still take steps to lower your risk.

Heart problems

Heart problems are the most important risk factors for cardiac arrest.

  • Coronary heart disease: Most people who had a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital had heart disease, although they may not have known it. The most common type of heart disease — coronary artery disease — is often caused by cholesterol, a waxy substance that builds up inside the lining of the coronary arteries and forms plaque. This buildup can partially or totally block blood flow in the large arteries of the heart.
  • Arrhythmias: Common types include atrial fibrillation and long QT syndrome.
  • Complications of coronary heart disease: These include heart attack, angina, and coronary artery spasm.
  • Problems with the heart structure:congenital heart defect — one that is present at birth — can damage the heart. Other structural problems, such as cardiomyopathy and heart valve disease, also raise the risk of cardiac arrest.
  • Damage to the heart: Heart inflammation is caused by an infection or a medical condition.
  • Heart failure: Heart failure is a condition that occurs when your heart doesn’t pump enough blood for your body’s needs. Complications of heart failure can include cardiac arrest.

Age

Your risk of cardiac arrest increases with age. It's rare in people younger than 30.

  • In younger people, the main risk factors are genetic arrhythmias, problems with the structure of the heart or coronary arteries, heart inflammation, and substance use.
  • In older adults, the main risk factors are coronary heart disease and other heart conditions.

Sex

Most cardiac arrests occur in men. Women’s risk increases after menopause.

Race and ethnicity

Black people have double the risk of dying from cardiac arrest than white people do. Black women’s risk is higher than that of Black men. Hispanic and Asian people may have lower risk than white people do.

 Action is needed to reduce cardiac arrest deaths for Black people.

Heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, partly explain the higher rate of cardiac arrest in Black people. But data from our Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study suggest that social factors — lower income and educational levels — are even more important reasons behind the higher risk for Black people.

Family history

Some conditions that raise cardiac arrest risk run in families. Tell your healthcare provider about any blood relatives who have arrhythmias or cardiac conduction disorders, or had a cardiac arrest. Your provider will also want to know about any blood relatives whose deaths were early, unexpected, or unexplained or the result of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Certain gene can cause conditions linked with dangerous arrhythmias. These rare conditions include problems with the heart’s electrical system. Genetic disorders are the main cause of cardiac arrest in children and young adults.

Other medical conditions and events

Other medical conditions, medicines, and injuries can raise the risk of cardiac arrest.

  • Respiratory arrest: If a person stops breathing, cardiac arrest will follow unless they get immediate treatment. Choking, drowning, trauma, drug overdose, and poisoning can cause respiratory arrest. Some medical conditions, such as pneumonia and seizure disorders, may also lead to respiratory arrest.
  • Diabetes and changes in the levels of electrolyte, such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium in the blood, raise the risk of cardiac arrest.
  • Certain medicines: Some antibiotics, diuretics, and heart medicines can worsen arrhythmias. Make sure your provider knows about all prescription and over-the-counter medicines you take.
  • A hard blow to the chest: Getting struck on the left side of your chest directly over the heart can lead to cardiac arrest. Most often these injuries are from a baseball, hockey puck, softball, or lacrosse ball. Chest injuries may also occur in soccer and football. Children (mainly boys) are at highest risk for this type of injury.

What if you already survived a cardiac arrest?

If you had a cardiac arrest, your risk for another one is very high. One in 5 survivors will have another life-threatening arrhythmia within the next year. Discuss options with your provider to help keep you safe.

Can cardiac arrest be prevented?

Coronary heart disease is the main risk factor for cardiac arrest in adults.

Studies show that heart-healthy living — never smoking, eating healthy, and being physically active, for example — throughout life can prevent coronary heart disease and its complications.

Work with your provider to set up a plan that works for you based on your lifestyle, your home and neighborhood environments, and your culture. Working with a team of healthcare providers may help with making changes in your diet, being physically active, managing other medical conditions, and quitting smoking.

28 Days Toward a Healthy Heart fact sheet
Fact sheet

28 Days Toward a Healthy Heart

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