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Every year in the United States, more than 355,000 people die when their hearts suddenly and unexpectedly stop beating. Known as Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA), this syndrome happens without warning and instantly stops the flow of blood to the brain and vital organs. It proves fatal in 92 percent of cases if not properly treated within minutes.

Sudden cardiac arrest is not a heart attack, which happens when a blocked blood vessel prevents blood from flowing to the heart, typically not occurring before age 35. SCA is caused by a malfunction in the heart’s electrical system that abruptly halts the heartbeat. These malfunctions are most often caused by an arrhythmia—an irregular heartbeat, or a structural problem. A variety of heart conditions can be congenital (present at birth) or can grow over time. Some conditions are hereditary, which is why knowing your extended family’s heart history is an important inclusion in your child’s medical record.

Media Reports Miss At Least 50% of Cases*

SCA can happen at any age, which includes thousands of youth annually. Sadly, there is no national registry recording the true incidence of sudden cardiac arrest in youth. What’s more, many unexplained young deaths are attributed to “natural causes” in the absence of the expertise to consider a pre-existing heart condition as the real cause of death, so the true incidence is likely more than estimated totals. Currently, a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health is working to develop a Sudden Death in the Young Case Registry to rectify this and ultimately influence better prevention standards.
*2014 IOC World Conference of Prevention of Injury & Illness in Sport


SCA can strike anyone, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. Even being in excellent health is no guarantee. The syndrome has affected professional athletes and people with no known health problems.

While SCA often has no warning signs, a study published by the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (2012) revealed that 72% of students who suffered from SCA were reported by their parents to have at least one cardiovascular symptom before SCA. They just didn’t recognize it as life-threatening. That’s why it’s important for everyone to understand potential warnings and risk factors based on your family’s heart history.

Warning Signs of a Potential Heart Condition

  • fainting or seizure, especially during or right after exercise
  • fainting repeatedly or with excitement or startle
  • racing heart or irregular heartbeat
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • chest pain or discomfort with exercise
  • excessive shortness of breath during exercise
  • excessive, unexpected fatigue during or after exercise

Factors That Increase Risk of Sudden Cardiac Arrest

  • family history of known heart abnormalities or sudden death before age 40
  • specific family history of Long QT Syndrome, Brugada Syndrome, Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, or Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia (ARVD)
  • family members with unexplained fainting, seizures, drowning or near-drowning or car accidents
  • known structural heart abnormality, repaired or unrepaired
  • recreational use of stimulants, inhalants, unprescribed medication, performance-enhancing supplements or excessive energy drinks

Check-in with your youth about whether they experience any of these warning signs. Annually, and especially at the start of each sports season, thoughtfully complete a cardiac risk assessment with your youth to inventory any unusual physical symptoms they may be experiencing. Discuss any findings immediately with your doctor, as well as family risk factors—and always get checked if your child experiences fainting, as it is the number one sign of a potential heart condition.

Why Warning Signs Get Missed

The reality is that we live in a very competitive world, and kids are daily encouraged to rise to the challenge. Young people often don’t tell adults if they experience symptoms, and parents often urge their kids to play hard and be tough.

  • Student-athletes (and often their parents) don’t want to jeopardize their playing time, so they may avoid telling parents or coaches in hopes that the symptoms will “just go away” on their own.
  • Kids may be embarrassed they can’t keep up, thinking they’re out of shape and just need to train harder.
  • Having felt this way all their life, they may be unaware that what they are feeling indicates a potentially fatal condition.
  • There is not enough dialogue and education in parent, school, sports, and medical communities about warning signs and how to recognize them.

We need to let our kids know that if they experience any of the above symptoms, it is crucial to alert an adult and get follow-up care right away with an appropriate physician. Additionally, if the youth has any of the SCA risk factors, these should also be immediately discussed with a doctor to determine if a heart screening is needed.