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Cardiac Arrest and Heart Disease

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart unexpectedly stops beating, usually because of abnormal heart rhythms, called arrhythmias.

Surprisingly, cardiac arrest most often strikes people in the prime of their lives--in their mid-30s to mid-40s. Victims may appear healthy before cardiac arrest and have no obvious symptoms of heart disease. But they typically have undiagnosed coronary artery disease (CAD)--the most common cause of the dangerous heart rhythm problems that can lead to this condition.

Other heart diseases that increase the risk for cardiac arrest include:

  • A recent heart attack

  • Heart failure (caused by the heart's decreased pumping ability)

  • Inherited conditions that affect the heart


CAD occurs when fatty plaque deposits accumulate on the walls of the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. Over time, the plaque buildup causes the coronary arteries to narrow. The plaque may rupture and form blood clots, which can cause heart attacks by limiting blood flow in the coronary arteries or by blocking them completely.

Scar tissue may replace the heart cells that die during a heart attack. The scar tissue can disrupt the heart's electrical system and increase the risk of developing harmful arrhythmias.


Doctors may prescribe beta-blockers or other medications to help lower the risk for cardiac arrest in people who have severe CAD or who have suffered a recent heart attack. Some people may also need angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery to improve blood flow to the heart. Implantable cardioverter defibrillator devices, which detect and respond to dangerous heart rhythms, are another option doctors may consider in certain high-risk patients, including those who have already experienced cardiac arrest.

Healthy habits

People with CAD or other heart conditions should see their doctors regularly and follow their  treatment plans. Healthy habits may also help reduce the risk for cardiac arrest:

  • Choose a balanced diet of nutritious foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt, and added sugar.

  • Shed excess weight.

  • Exercise as regularly as possible, preferably at least 30 minutes a day on five or more days each week.

  • Quit smoking.