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September 05, 2023

Warning signs for cardiac arrest are different in men and women, study finds

Only about 1 in 5 people who experience early symptoms seek urgent medical attention. But doing so drastically improves odds of survival

Prevention Cardiac Arrest
Ambulance Cardiac Arrest Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

About half of people who experience sudden cardiac arrest have symptoms within 24 hours beforehand, new research shows. But the primary warning signs differ among men and women.

More than 356,000 Americans suffer cardiac arrest in non-hospital settings every year, and as many as 80% of them die of the heart condition. Seeking immediate medical attention when experiencing common symptoms can prevent the loss of life, but research shows few people take action.

Cardiac arrest – when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating – often happens without warning. But a new study found that 50% of people who suffered cardiac arrest experienced a warning sign within 24 hours beforehand. And the red flags often were different for men and women.

Men were more likely to experience chest pain; for women, the primary warning sign was shortness of breath. Palpitations, seizure-like activity and flu-like symptoms, including excessive sweating, also were common symptoms. 

Prior research has shown that only about 1 in 5 people who experience early warning signs seek urgent medical care. But those who do are more than five times more likely to survive. 

People who are having chest pain or sudden shortness of breath, as well as other signs of cardiac arrest, are advised to call 911 or or head to an emergency room. Though many of these symptoms can be attributed to other ailments and are not necessarily going to lead to cardiac arrest, seeking help may be a life-or-death decision, doctors told Everyday Health.

The study, published by The Lancet Digital Health, included 823 people who had suffered cardiac arrest and 1,171 people who experienced similar symptoms but did not have cardiac arrest. 

"Harnessing warning symptoms to perform effective triage for those who need to make a 911 call can lead to early intervention and prevention of imminent death," said Dr. Sumeet Chugh, director of the Center for Cardiac Arrest Prevention at the Smidt Heart Institute in Los Angeles, California. "Our findings could lead to a new paradigm for prevention of sudden cardiac death." 

During cardiac arrest – which differs from a heart attack – blood stops flowing to the rest of the body and breathing ceases. The person falls unconscious and can die without immediate treatment. Those who survive may have brain injuries, problems with internal organs and psychological distress, including post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Cardiac arrest can be caused by cardiomyopathy, which happens when the heart muscle becomes enlarged or stiff, clogged coronary arteries, diseased heart valves or arrhythmia – when the heart beats too slow or too fast. Heart attacks increase the risk for cardiac arrest because they can alter electrical signals in the heart.

The same factors that up the risk of heart disease also increase the risk of cardiac arrest. That includes a family history of heart health issues, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and an inactive lifestyle. People with chronic kidney disease, those who are older and people with sleep apnea also may be at risk. 

Keeping the heart healthy reduces the risk of cardiac arrest. That includes eating healthy, getting regular checkups, not smoking, being screened for heart disease and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol. 

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