The leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease. This should not come as a surprise. The heart beats about 2 billion times during an average lifetimes and pumps 100,000 gallons of blood. Name one other piece of machinery that works this hard and lasts as long . . . you can’t.

Heart disease comes in many forms and can affect people of all ages. Our organization focuses on the conditions that lead to sudden cardiac arrest and death in children. You can find more about world heart disease on our Best Resources page.

We want to learn more about these conditions and the incidence of sudden cardiac arrest in children. There is no national registry. There is not much research being done. Children leave the hospital as newborns and their hearts are not screened until they are symptomatic or middle-aged adults. That’s no way to treat such a vital and hardworking organ.

What is sudden cardiac arrest?

Sudden cardiac arrest is what happens when the heart stops beating suddenly and unexpectedly. Out of nowhere, the heart stops pumping blood and the person collapses. We like the machinery analogy. Has your car or washing machine just broken down without warning? Let’s explore the causes.

What isn’t sudden cardiac arrest?

People are always confusing sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack. They use the words interchangeably, like Coke and Pepsi.  They’re both colas, but they are very different.

Think about the water in your home. In one scenario, someone shuts off the water main. In another, the water slows down because there is a clog in the drain. In both scenarios, the plumbing isn’t working properly, but the causes, symptoms and treatments are different.

Sudden cardiac arrest causes the heart to just stop. The “main” gets shut off instantly and everything in the body stops working. The person collapses and is unconscious. During a heart attack, an artery is blocked and the blood flow either slows down or stops entirely. This blockage can damage or destroy some of the heart muscle over time. Unlike sudden cardiac arrest, the person will likely remain conscious during the heart attack.

This distinction is important so you can accurately complete medical history forms for yourself and family. Our doctors consider the health of our parents and grandparents, so the more you know, the better you’ll be.

Can you survive sudden cardiac arrest?

Yes, but the survival rate is not good because we are not prepared. The average survival rate of adults who experience SCA outside of the hospital is around 12%. However, when a school is prepared, the survival rate can be 89%. Fortunately, preparation is not difficult or that expensive.

To survive sudden cardiac arrest, the victim needs to receive hands-only cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and get defibrillated with an automated external defibrillator (AED). CPR keeps the blood flowing throughout the body (since the heart stopped doing its job), and the AED shocks the heart back into a normal rhythm.

CPR should begin immediately and the AED should be applied within three minutes. For every minute lost, the chance of survival drops by 10%.

How can you tell when someone is in cardiac arrest?

Public service reminder – if you think there is an emergency, call 911.

The first sign is obvious – the child is not breathing. He might have collapsed for no apparent reason. She may not have woken up from sleep. In both scenarios, the child may be lying still or shaking (looks like a seizure). If someone collapses and is shaking and there is no history of epilepsy or head trauma, assume it is cardiac arrest.

Feel around the neck for a pulse. Listen for breathing sounds. Watch the chest for movement.  If there is no pulse or breathing, it is cardiac arrest.

What causes sudden cardiac arrest in children?

There are two types of heart conditions that lead to sudden cardiac arrest in children: structural and electrical. A structural defect, like cardiomyopathy, prevents the heart from working properly – it’s too big or the parts are in the wrong place. An electrical defect, like Long QT Syndrome, interrupts the heart’s rhythm which results in a dangerous arrhythmia (fancy term for bad heartbeat). These conditions are usually hereditary, but can be acquired in some instances. There are infections that attack the heart. Some medications can affect the heartbeat and cause harm. Finally, substances like caffeine and recreational drugs can make the heart race resulting in an arrhythmia.

What do sudden cardiac arrest symptoms look like for children?

Sudden cardiac arrest does not always have symptoms. When symptoms appear, they can look like these, which is different than the symptoms of adults:

Fainting or seizures during or immediately after exercise

  1. Unexplained shortness of breath
  2. Dizziness
  3. Extreme fatigue
  4. Racing heart (feels like it is beating out of your chest).
  5. Sudden and unexplained death of a family member under the age of 50 (e.g. drowning, auto accident, SIDS).

How common is sudden cardiac arrest in children?

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that two thousand children die every year from SCA. It is the leading cause of death of student athletes. However, the actual number of children is not well established. In 2013, the Center for Disease Control and National Institute of Health launched a pilot program to gather data on sudden death of minors. It was launched in ten states.

Without data, we cannot ever know the answer to this question. When a student dies in a pool, is it drowning or sudden cardiac arrest? How do you determine the cause of death for a single car accident during the day, in good weather, with no signs of substances? What about the baby who dies in his sleep? When the heart stops suddenly and unexpectedly, all of the above-mentioned scenarios occur because you can’t swim, drive or wake up without a heartbeat.  We need to get better at looking at the cause of death instead of the setting. Hopefully, one day, we will passionately track the causes of death of our children. It will only make us smarter adults.

Prevention makes all the difference.

Simon’s Heart provides free youth heart screenings in the Greater Philadelphia area. If you live in other parts of the country, please visit our sister site, Screen Across America, to find a heart screening organization near you. You should also be prepared to help if sudden cardiac arrest strikes. With two hands and an easy-to-use machine, you can save someone’s life - the Chain of Survival.