News / Health

Study: High Percentage of Sudden Heart-Related Deaths Preventable

Patient in a hospital undergoing heart tests
Patient in a hospital undergoing heart tests
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Carol Pearson

There's new medical evidence that women who do not smoke and maintain a healthy weight with diet and exercise can reduce their risk of sudden cardiac death by more than 90 percent. The finding might seem obvious, but for many people it isn't.  

Sudden cardiac arrest can happen to anybody - young and old alike. It is not a heart attack. It's a mechanical problem where the heart just stops beating. Without emergency medical care, most people who experience it die within minutes.

Heart disease is the main reason people's hearts suddenly stop. An abnormal heart beat also increases the risk. Age is a factor.

So is obesity and lack of exercise.

Although women face the same risk as men for heart problems, they are more likely to delay contacting a doctor or going to an emergency room.

Stephanie Chiuve, a researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, is one of the co-authors of a study that followed more than 80,000 women for 26 years.

"The objective of our study was to examine the burden of sudden cardiac death that may be due to unhealthy lifestyle habits," she said.

The participants reported on their smoking, exercise and eating habits.  

Among the women who volunteered for this study, some had heart disease and others didn't. Chiuve says the results were consistent in both groups.

"Within this population, approximately 81 percent of all sudden cardiac deaths [might] have been prevented had all of the women adhered to a healthy lifestyle," she said.

But the study found that women who maintained a healthy weight through diet and exercise, and also didn't smoke, lowered their risk of sudden cardiac death even more - by 92 percent.

The message is clear: eat plenty of fruits and vegetables - and exercise. Doctors generally recommend between five and nine servings daily.

And exercise? One cardiologist says the type of exercise doesn't matter. 

"Some of this activity doesn't have to be an exercise program," Dr. Paul Thompson said. "It simply has to be not sitting. There are some studies that show that you get a lot of the benefits of exercise simply by being on your feet and not sitting at a desk."

In the United States, sudden cardiac arrest causes more than 300,000 deaths each year.  The World Health Organization reports that heart disease accounts for more than 15 million deaths, or about 30 percent of the global total, every year.  If public health initiatives work to decrease risk factors for heart disease, doctors say the numbers of people dying from sudden cardiac arrest and other heart conditions should decrease as well.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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