Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) Prevention

Minutes Matter

The time it takes for help and treatment to occur is a life and death situation during SCA. Ninety-five percent of those who experience SCA die because they do not receive life-saving defibrillation within four to six minutes, before brain and permanent death begin to occur.

If a SCA emergency is suspected, the following steps are recommended:

  1. Know the signs of SCA and react quickly. SCA strikes immediately and without warning. Victims will fall to the ground/collapse, become unresponsive and will not breathe normally, if at all.
  2. Call 911 as soon as possible.
  3. Start CPR as quickly as possible. If you don’t know CPR, conduct Hands-Only™ CPR, which is providing chest compressions by pushing hard and fast in the middle of the victim’s chest with minimal interruptions at approximately 100 beats per minute (or hum the Bee Gees song “Staying Alive”). Studies of real emergencies have shown Hands-only™ CPR  , to be equally or more effective than conventional CPR.
  4. If available, use an automated external defibrillator (AED) as soon as possible. AEDs are a computerized medical device that can check a person’s heart rhythm and recognize and deliver a shock to a heart that needs it.
Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) Automatic External Defibrillator (AED)

AEDs are increasingly available at public locations, such as airports, gyms, malls, and office buildings.  These devices will only deliver a shock when an irregular heart rhythm is detected and usually do not cause any major harm with shock.


Prevention and Treatment

While there are often no signs or symptoms prior to SCA, there are things people can do to decrease the likelihood of experiencing SCA.

  • Live a healthy lifestyle — exercise regularly, eat healthy foods, maintain a healthy weight and avoid smoking.
  • Treat and monitor all health conditions including High Blood Pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Ask a doctor about ejection fraction monitoring to determine if there is a risk.
  • Control or stop abnormal heart rhythms that may trigger life-threatening arrhythmias through proper medication, implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs), and in some, cases surgical procedures.
  • Know family heart history and understand the risks for other cardiovascular-related conditions, like heart failure. Communicate these to a physician. 

While treatment guidelines recommend ICDs as the standard of care for patients at risk for SCA, a large percentage of patients at highest risk do not receive this treatment, especially African Americans and women. In addition, studies have shown that African Americans are significantly less likely than Caucasians to have electrophysiologic studies (which would identify abnormal heart rhythms) or to get an ICD.ii  While reasons for this are still being investigated, it has been shown that sudden cardiac death rates are higher among African Americans.iii


i National Medical Association. (2008). Sudden Cardiac Arrest: Advancing Awareness and Bridging Gaps to Improve Survival. Washington, DC: NMA.

ii Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research. (2003). Treatment to Prevent Sudden Cardiac Death. Washington, DC: AHRQ.

iii CDC. (2002). State-Specific Mortality from Sudden Cardiac Death --- United States, 1999. MMWR, 123-6.