Did you know… that sudden cardiac death is usually the first symptom of coronary heart disease (CHD) — especially among women? Compared to men, studies show that women are 66% less likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease before sudden cardiac death strikes.

If you’re a woman and free of symptoms, you’re not identified as “high risk” which means you’re not eligible for cardiac interventions that could save your life. SCD accounts for more than 50% of cardiac deaths (approximately 250,000 to 310,000 cases annually in the United States).

Heart Attack vs. Sudden Cardiac Death

To clarify, the terms “heart attack” and “sudden cardiac death” are NOT the same thing.

  • A heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI) occurs when the flow of oxygen-rich blood suddenly gets blocked. Oxygen can’t get to a section of the heart and cardiac tissue dies. Most often the heart is blocked by a build-up of fatty plaque.
  • Sudden cardiac death (SCD) is an abrupt loss of heart function as a result of abnormal electrical impulses within the heart. The heart’s electrical system may fail from physical stress, inherited arrhythmias, drug/alcohol abuse, chronic kidney disease, structural changes in the heart, and/or scar tissue that damages the heart’s electrical system. (Cardiac deaths were considered “sudden” if the death or cardiac arrest occurred within 1 hour of the onset of symptoms.)

Simply put, SCD is considered an ‘electrical’ problem whereas a heart attack is more of a ‘plumbing’ problem. Over the years, I’ve had several patients that were revived and survived sudden cardiac arrest who said they didn’t need cardiac rehab because they didn’t have a heart attack, but had an “electrical issue”. They couldn’t be more wrong.

SCD Risk Can Be Prevented   

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a 26-year study of nearly 82,000 women that showed you can reduce your risk for sudden cardiac death. In the majority of people, coronary heart disease is usually the underlying cause of SCD and this study showed that a low-risk, healthy lifestyle is associated with a low risk of sudden cardiac death.

What’s a Low-Risk Lifestyle?

The women that followed all four lifestyle factors (below) lowered their risk of SCD by 92% compared to those who did not adhere to the following:

  1. Smoking – Not currently smoking
  2. Exercise – Regular participation in moderate or vigorous intensity activity for 30 minutes per day or longer
  3. Diet – Follow a Mediterranean diet that includes:
    • High intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, legumes, fish
    • Optimal ratio of heart-healthy monounsaturated to unhealthy saturated fat
    • Moderate intake of alcohol (0.5-1 drink/day)
    • Low intake of red and processed meat
    • High intake of omega-3 fats, nuts, fish, and moderate alcohol consumption
  4. Weight – A BMI (body mass index) of less than 25

NOTE: Less than 40% of American women aged 45 to 74 years maintain a BMI of less than 25 and just 22% exercise regularly at a light to moderate intensity.

Apple c heart symbol_40x54Fit Tip: Whether you’re a man or a woman, focus on modifying your lifestyle habits. Managing blood pressure (aim for <120/80 mm Hg) and diabetes are also associated with lowering SCD risk. Best of all, a low-risk lifestyle can also prevent and reverse other chronic diseases while it lessens joint pain, builds bone density, reduces stress, anxiety and depression and ultimately, increases your independence and longevity.

Karen Owoc

Karen Owoc is a certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist specializing in cardiopulmonary rehabilitation and lifestyle medicine. Her science-based approach to longevity, nutrition, and muscle health has made her the go-to source for health seekers and medical professionals alike. Karen's best-selling book on functional longevity, "Athletes in Aprons: The Nutrition Playbook to Break 100", and her transformative perspective have mended many minds, hearts, and spirits.

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