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Sudden Cardiac Death: Another Reason Men Should Stop Avoiding The Doctor


Results from a recently published study show men twice as likely as women to die from sudden cardiac death. It’s the largest cause of natural death in the U.S., causing about 325,000 adult deaths each year.

Highlights from the interview with Dr. Carl Horton, a cardiologist with Texas Health Physicians Group.

What is Sudden Cardiac Death: “Essentially, sudden cardiac death is death, usually in one hour, from coronary heart disease, and it’s usually not thought to be related to any other specific illness. (Sam: Just comes on seemingly out of the blue?) Correct.”

Is it the same as a heart attack?  “It can be a myocardial infarction, which is the medical term for a heart attack, but it also could be related to other things: Arrythmia-related, where the heart goes into a bad rhythm, which can subsequently kill you. Other conditions are related to structural heart disease. If the heart has a cardiac myopathy or genetic predisposition, and those can also cause sudden death.”

Is a person given to sudden death someone who was already ill to begin with?  “Not necessarily. It could be someone who has underlying illnesses, but it could also be someone who is seemingly otherwise healthy.”

Risk factors?  “There’s a study recently published by the Framingham Heart Study. Most of those risk factors looked at were basic things: whether they had high blood pressure or not, diabetic, if you’re a smoker. Also looked at age and gender. And the most prevalent risk factor to come out of that study was hypertension or high blood pressure.”

Why the study shows a greater rate of SCD among men? “I don’t think we know the complete answer to that. We know that coronary artery disease tends to develop earlier in men than in women. Usually in men, it tends to develop 15 years earlier than women, and women, the risk of them developing underlying heart disease increases after they go through menopause. So really it’s not uncommon for me to take care of a gentleman who came into the emergency room with a heart attack in his 30s or 40s, but it’s rare for us to see a women who presents that early.”

Any guesses behind the high rate for men?  “Well in terms of developing general coronary heart disease, women have higher levels of HDL or high density lipoprotein that men, and that’s thought to be negative risk factor.  Usually across the board, if I see patients in my office, women tends to have higher levels of HDL than men. Then once women go through menopause, the level of HDL begins to decrease and the risk of heart disease begins to increase. It’s kind of like two lines that cross.  Then we begin to see the peak in heart disease in women. But there are some categories where we do see heart disease earlier in women. Usually those are heavy smokers and if they’re diabetic.”

That wouldn’t suggest sudden cardiac death would happen to women before it happened to men? “Not necessarily. Across all age groups, men have higher rates of sudden cardiac death compared to women. It didn’t matter what age it was. The number one risk factor was hypertension, across all age groups.  

Since hypertension can treated, can SCD? “If your blood pressure’s well controlled, than that can help reduce your risk. Visit a physician on a regular basis. Regular aerobic exercise definitely helps reduce the risk. And we all need to do better on diet.”

For more information:

Framingham Heart Study 

What is Sudden Cardiac Arrest? 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.