What You Need to Know About Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA): What You Need to Know

October is dedicated to raising awareness about sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), a critical health issue. In today’s world, with an abundance of information on heart health, cardiovascular lifestyle choices, and risk factors, it can be confusing to differentiate between sudden cardiac arrest and other heart conditions. So, what exactly is SCA, and how can you equip yourself and your family to combat it? Read on as we provide a breakdown of the essential information you need to know.

During Heart Health Month, the Heart Rhythm Society (HRS) and the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) are joining forces to promote the “Arrest the Risk” campaign. SCA is responsible for over 350,000 deaths annually in the United States, occurring when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating.

Sadly, approximately 95 percent of SCA cases result in death, making it particularly deadly for African Americans. To combat the higher incidence of SCA in this community, HRS and ABC are launching a 10-city initiative. This initiative aims to educate at-risk communities and provide resources on risk factors and preventive treatments to reduce sudden cardiac arrest among African Americans.

In ten locations, the Heart Rhythm Society (HRS) and the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) are cooperating with healthcare practitioners and African American community leaders to educate African Americans about the catastrophic consequences of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). SCA happens when the heart abruptly and unexpectedly stops beating. It kills more than 350,000 people in the United States each year, and it kills more African Americans than any other racial or ethnic group.

Understanding the Risk of Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)

As part of this program, HRS has created a SCA risk assessment tool, which is available at www.ArrestTheRisk.org. This application enables individuals to self-reflect on personal and family health conditions as well as initiate a conversation with their doctor about their SCA risks. Doctors can then recommend patients to specialists for additional evaluation and discussion of preventative methods, such as electrophysiologists.

A lack of understanding and access to appropriate treatment exacerbates the catastrophic impact of SCA among African Americans. HRS and ABC are striving to increase African American knowledge of SCA and give them the services they need to lower their risk. When it comes to SCA, early intervention can truly save lives.

Dr. Kevin L. Thomas, MD, F.A.C.C., of Duke University Medical Center’s Division of Cardiovascular Disease, emphasizes the need to discuss SCA risk factors with your doctor, especially your family’s heart health history. Take advantage of Heart Health Month in February to schedule an appointment, assess your risk, and explore preventive treatment options.

A national survey conducted by HRS in October highlighted the lack of awareness and treatment of SCA among African Americans, placing them at a greater risk of death from this condition. Shockingly, 90 percent of African Americans reported that their doctors had never discussed SCA with them.

Furthermore, while treatment guidelines prescribe implanted cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) as the standard of care for those at risk of SCA, research shows that African Americans are less likely to use these devices and other modern cardiovascular technologies. As a result, a considerable number of high-risk patients are not obtaining these life-saving medications, increasing the possibility of mortality.

The President of ABC, Ola Akinboboye, MD, MPH, MBA, emphasizes that sudden cardiac arrest is one of many heart-related illnesses that disproportionately impact African Americans. Campaigns like “Arrest the Risk” serve as crucial reminders to all individuals, regardless of age or health condition, to inform patients. Taking steps to reduce the risk of SCA is essential, and you should not delay discussing it with your doctor.

Understanding the Risk of Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)

Arrhythmia refers to an abnormal heart rhythm that can be either too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia). In the majority of situations, an arrhythmia can result in serious harm or even death. An electrical shock is delivered to the heart to restore normal rhythm. This life-saving procedure is known as cardioversion. SCA occurs when the heart abruptly stops beating, and if the heartbeat is not restored immediately with an electrical shock, sudden cardiac death (SCD) follows.

To counteract SCA, the best defence is to “shock” the heart back into its normal rhythm. Medical devices, both internal and external, have been developed for this purpose. External devices, such as automatic external defibrillators (AEDs), are used in emergencies to rapidly restore a person’s heartbeat.

However, if there are any symptoms of SCA present, electronic devices that can be implanted in the chest are used to prevent emergencies. Implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs), pacemakers, and cardiac resynchronization therapy are examples of these devices.

How to Reduce Your SCA Risk

The “Arrest the Risk” campaign was launched in October 2012 to address the disparities in SCA incidents among African Americans and foster increased communication between patients and physicians.

The campaign aims to break down barriers to timely diagnosis and treatment of SCA through educational resources, a SCA risk assessment tool available on ArrestTheRisk.org, and a compelling public service announcement starring Shaun Robinson, an Emmy-award-winning journalist and weekend co-anchor and correspondent for “Access Hollywood.”

There are several things you may do to lower your chances of SCA, including:

  • Eating a nutritious diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Keeping a healthy weight
  • Smoking cessation
  • Managing blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels
  • Having routine checkups

If you have any of the risk factors for SCA, speak with your doctor about strategies to lower your risk.

ICDs (Implantable Cardioverter Devices)

ICDs are the most successful treatment for arrhythmias and are extremely effective in stopping life-threatening arrhythmias. These little gadgets, roughly the size of a pager, are worn beneath the collarbone. They continuously monitor the heart’s rhythm via wires or leads. If the heart beats too quickly or too slowly, the ICD delivers an electric jolt to restore the heart’s normal rhythm.

Most ICDs also have the capability of recording the heart’s activity during abnormal rhythms. Electrophysiologists, physicians specializing in cardiac arrhythmias, can study this data alongside other symptoms that may have occurred. The ICD can be configured to “pace” the heart in some situations, restoring its natural rhythm and avoiding the need for a shock.


Pacemakers are devices used to regulate the heart rate when it beats too slowly. They monitor and control the heart’s rhythm by transmitting electrical impulses that stimulate the heart if it’s beating too slowly. Pacemakers, which are implanted below the collarbone, contain a battery, electronic circuits, and a computer memory that work together to generate these electronic signals. Leads carry the signals to the heart muscle, initiating the contractions that create a heartbeat.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA): What You Need to KnowA pacemaker is programmed to stimulate the heart at a predetermined rate, and its settings can be adjusted as needed. Routine evaluation ensures that the pacemaker is functioning properly and monitors its battery life, which typically lasts between five and ten years.

Three basic types of pacemakers are available, each serving different purposes. An electrophysiologist can determine the most appropriate type based on an individual’s condition. While ICDs can sometimes work as pacemakers in certain instances, they are not designed to do so.

Resynchronization Therapy for the Heart

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved a specialized pacemaker for certain heart failure patients called cardiac resynchronization therapy. This device simultaneously paces the left and right ventricles (lower chambers) of the heart, resynchronizing muscle contractions and improving the efficiency of a weakened heart.

Arrest the Risk: Heart Rhythm Society SCA Awareness

The Heart Rhythm Society, in collaboration with Ipsos Healthcare, conducted a nationwide survey to assess Americans’ perception and awareness of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). The study’s major findings emphasized the urgent need for a more aggressive awareness campaign to improve understanding, timely diagnosis, and treatment of SCA.

The study revealed that only 18 percent of African Americans have a fair understanding of the condition, compared to 24 percent of the general population. Compounding the issue is the fact that most SCA-related deaths occur among African Americans.

Sudden cardiac arrest is a condition characterized by the sudden and unexpected loss of normal heart function. It is usually triggered by an electrical disruption in the heart, affecting its pumping action and leading to the cessation of blood flow to various parts of the body.

To promote better understanding and awareness of SCA, the Heart Rhythm Society, together with prominent journalist Shaun Robinson from “Access Hollywood” and the Association of Black Cardiologists, has launched a nationwide information dissemination campaign called “Arrest the Risk.” The primary objective of this campaign is to break down barriers to timely diagnosis and medical intervention, thereby preventing SCA.

What is Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)?

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) occurs when an electrical problem causes the heart to cease beating and pumping blood unexpectedly. The lack of blood flow to the brain and other organs can lead to loss of consciousness, disability, or even death if not promptly treated.

It is crucial to understand that SCA differs from a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked, while sudden cardiac arrest occurs due to a malfunction in the heart’s electrical system, causing it to stop beating unexpectedly. Consider a heart attack to be a “circulation” or “plumbing” issue, and SCA to be an “electrical” issue.

SCA strikes suddenly, causing an immediate collapse. Victims may stop breathing or gasp for breath, experience unconsciousness, and be unresponsive to attempts to wake them. There are often limited or no warning signs before SCA occurs.

Every second counts once it strikes, as survival chances decrease by 10% for every minute without an intervention like CPR or AED use. Shockingly, 90% of SCA victims do not survive.

Various factors can contribute to SCA, including structural abnormalities in the heart, heart conditions causing electrical abnormalities, sudden chest impact during physical activities, heart attacks or strokes, medication or drug use, and other factors causing an irregular heart rhythm or arrhythmia.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) Statistics

  • Every day, 1,000 Americans of all ages are affected by SCA.
  • More than 65% of Americans misjudge the severity of SCA and mistake it for a form of heart attack.
  • There are over 356,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests (OHCA) in the U.S. annually, with nearly 90% resulting in fatalities.
  • The majority of OHCA incidents occur in homes or residences (73.9%), followed by public settings (15.1%) and nursing homes (10.9%).
  • In 37.1% of cases, a layperson witnesses the collapse, while a 911 responder witnesses it in 12.8% of cases. In 50.1% of cases, the collapse goes unwitnessed.

What causes sudden cardiac arrest (SCA)?

Ventricular fibrillation (VF), an irregular and hazardous cardiac rhythm, is the most prevalent cause of SCA. VF develops when the electrical signals that govern the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles) become disorganized or chaotic. This malfunction leads to fibrillation, a rapid and irregular quivering that prevents effective blood pumping.

Within seconds, a person experiencing VF loses consciousness due to the lack of blood reaching the brain. Without immediate restoration of a normal heart rhythm, SCA and death can occur within minutes. Bystanders who intervene quickly to inform first responders and begin CPR can enhance the prognosis.

How common is SCA?

Despite its relative lack of visibility, SCA is surprisingly common, affecting more people annually than diseases like breast or lung cancer. Approximately 356,000 cardiac arrests occur outside of hospital settings each year, equivalent to one life lost every two minutes. At Living for Zachary, we consider SCA a significant public health issue that demands attention and action.

Who does SCA affect?

SCA can impact people of diverse ages and backgrounds, from infancy to old age. While many associate heart issues with lifestyle and age-related factors, sudden cardiac arrest can strike anyone, even those who appear perfectly healthy. Some heart conditions, like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, may not exhibit symptoms until SCA occurs, making them difficult to detect.

Alarmingly, SCA disproportionately impacts youth. It is the leading cause of death on school campuses and the top killer of student-athletes, as reported by Parent Heart Watch. Living for Zachary aims to raise awareness of SCA among youth across North Texas through a comprehensive approach encompassing prevention, training, response, and education.

Symptoms and Signs of Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)

SCA occurs abruptly, without warning. Two-thirds of SCA deaths happen without prior indications of heart disease. It can strike people of all ages and health conditions, often without any signs or symptoms. However, certain risk factors can increase the likelihood of SCA, including a history of heart attack, family history of sudden death or heart failure, unknown abnormal heart rate or rhythm, rapid intermittent heart rate, unexplained fainting, certain congenital heart defects, and low ejection fraction (EF).

Prevention of Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)

While signs and symptoms may not precede SCA, there are preventive measures individuals can take to decrease their risk of experiencing it:

  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle.
  • Engage in regular exercise.
  • Consume a balanced and nutritious diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Existing health issues such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes should be monitored and managed. Consult your doctor about ejection fraction monitoring to assess your risk.
  • Control or treat irregular heart rhythms that could lead to life-threatening arrhythmias with drugs, implanted cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs), and, in certain situations, surgical treatments.
  • Be aware of your family’s heart history and understand the risks associated with other cardiovascular conditions, such as heart failure. Share this information with your physician.

Treatment for Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)

Minutes matter when it comes to treating SCA. Ninety-five percent of SCA victims die because they do not receive life-saving defibrillation within four to six minutes before brain damage and irreversible death occur. If you suspect an SCA emergency, follow these steps:

  • Recognize the signs of SCA and act quickly. SCA strikes suddenly, causing victims to collapse, lose consciousness, and breathe abnormally or stop breathing altogether.
  • Immediately call 911.
  • Begin CPR as soon as possible. If you are unfamiliar with CPR, perform hands-on CPR by applying firm and rapid chest compressions at approximately 100 compressions per minute (you can use the rhythm of the song “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees).
  • Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) as soon as possible, if one is accessible. AEDs are computerized medical devices that analyze a person’s heart rhythm and deliver a shock if necessary. They are increasingly accessible in public places such as airports, gyms, malls, and office buildings. AEDs only administer a shock when an irregular heart rhythm is detected and are generally safe to use.


Call-Push-Shock (CPS) is a nationwide collaborative campaign co-sponsored by Parent Heart Watch (PHW) and the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation (SCAF) and supported by the Heart Rhythm Society. It aims to drive public awareness, understanding, and action in cases of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest to increase survival rates through unified messaging.

By taking immediate life-saving actions following the call-push-shock approach, you can triple a victim’s chances of survival.

  • Call 911 and follow the emergency dispatcher’s instructions.
  • Begin CPR, delivering firm and rapid compressions at the centre of the victim’s chest at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute.
  • Use an AED if available, following the step-by-step audio/visual instructions. Remember that an AED cannot harm the person; it can only help.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Isn’t sudden cardiac arrest the same as a heart attack?

This is a popular myth. Sudden cardiac arrest and heart attacks have different causes and require distinct preventive measures and responses. While heart attacks are typically caused by blockages in the heart’s blood vessels, resulting in reduced blood flow, SCA is caused by electrical issues that lead to the sudden cessation of heartbeats.

Heart attacks often exhibit warning signs like gradual chest pain, while SCA typically occurs without warning. During a heart attack, a person may remain conscious and the heart may continue beating, whereas SCA causes immediate collapse and loss of consciousness.

While a heart attack can lead to SCA, this is not always the case. Understanding these differences is crucial to increasing awareness that SCA can affect anyone at any time, emphasizing the importance of preparedness and action.

Can sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) be prevented?

Some occurrences of SCA can be avoided with early detection of heart problems that may lead to cardiac arrest. To learn more about Living for Zachary’s Youth Heart Screening Program designed for individuals aged 12–22, please visit our website.

While some cases of SCA cannot be prevented in advance, we can save lives after an incident occurs. Immediate CPR use following cardiac arrest can double or triple the chances of survival. When combined with the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED) to restore a normal heart rhythm, CPR and AED use become powerful tools that can save countless lives.

How can I protect my family from sudden cardiac arrest?

You have already taken an important step by educating yourself about SCA and its risks. By doing so, you are equipping yourself with the knowledge to make a difference in your loved ones’ hearts. Here are a few more steps you can take:

  • Start a dialogue with the young people in your life to determine whether they have encountered any symptoms that could signal a cardiac issue. Sometimes, simply starting a conversation can reveal something not readily apparent from observation alone. Learn more about the warning signs and symptoms of SCA on our website.
  • Consider registering your child for a prophylactic cardiac screening to detect any potential problems. Living for Zachary offers free youth heart screenings throughout the year in North Texas. Check our website for upcoming screening events.
  • Get certified in CPR! This is one of the best ways to prepare as a bystander to assist in a cardiac emergency. CPR and AED training provide you with the necessary skills and confidence to step in and assist, potentially making a life-or-death difference.

Several times a year, Living for Zachary provides free CPR training to the general public. Visit our website for information on upcoming classes.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people in the United States die as a result of sudden cardiac arrest. We can change these statistics and offer more hearts a second chance if we work together.

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