As February marks both Black History and Heart Health Month, it is time to start the conversation around sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and its impact on African Americans. SCA is the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming approximately 350,000 lives annually. Compared to other racial groups, African-American men and women are at the highest risk of SCA. Being aware of risk factors for SCA will allow for a more educated and impactful conversation with your healthcare provider and could help you or someone you know seek the necessary treatment before it’s too late.
It’s important to note that SCA is very different from a heart attack. While a heart attack is caused by a clogged vessel that prevents blood flow to sections of the heart, SCA occurs when there is a malfunction in the electrical signal that regulates the heartbeat. Unlike a heart attack that has typical symptoms associated with it (chest pain or pressure, sweating, upset stomach, left arm pain or tingling, shortness of breath), SCA often has no warning signs or symptoms. Approximately 95 percent of SCA cases result in death.
A recent survey by the Heart Rhythm Society (HRS) found that people in general were not familiar with SCA, with only 24 percent able to correctly identify the condition. Only 18 percent of African Americans were able to recognize the definition of SCA. The survey also revealed that 90 percent of African Americans say that their doctor has not talked to them about their risk of SCA.
Please consider the following four pieces of advice for both your health and your family:
- Know your family heart history. The more you know about your family history, the more information you can provide your doctor to help assess your risk for SCA.
- Do your research. SCA is a serious issue and you need to be your own best advocate.
- Be on the lookout. If you experience blackouts and/or fainting, you may be at risk for SCA. Consult your doctor and be sure to document all incidents to ensure you have the information to best allow your doctor to assess your risk.
- Listen to your body and take action. The HRS survey found that more than 60 percent of African Americans with no self-reported prior heart disease who experienced heart disease symptoms did not visit the doctor as a result.
SCA claims more lives every year than breast cancer, prostate cancer and AIDS combined. It is a matter of life or death that deserves a conversation with your doctor.
Dr. Thomas is a cardiac electrophysiologist and an assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiovascular disease at Duke University Medical Center. He also maintains a position at the Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI) and is a fellow in the American College of Cardiology. Dr. Thomas is a spokesperson for the Heart Rhythm Society’s “Arrest the Risk” campaign, an effort to elevate the issue of SCA prevention, early intervention, and appropriate treatment among the African-American and Hispanic populations.