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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Northwestern: Making the Case for Screening for Sudden Cardiac Death

Sudden cardiac death affects one in every nine men and one in every 30 women and most commonly occurs in people with no prior symptoms of cardiovascular disease, according to a Northwestern Medicine study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. This translates to the death of approximately 450,000 Americans each year, most of whom are younger than 70. This study is the first to estimate lifetime risk for sudden cardiac death.

“A study like this really raises the awareness of sudden death, particularly because it is occurring so frequently and at relatively young ages. It is destroying a lot of families yet it is almost entirely preventable,” said lead author Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, chair of the Department the Preventive Medicine and director of Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones and his colleagues analyzed data collected in the Framingham Heart Study, a decades-long cardiovascular study that started in 1948. The study examined data on more than 5,200 men and women aged 28 to 62 who were free of cardiovascular disease at the time of their enrollment.

The study found:

Focusing on four major risk factors — blood pressure, total cholesterol, smoking, and diabetes — the research team calculated overall cumulative lifetime risk estimates for sudden cardiac death, as well as estimates according to risk factor burden. These risk factors are standard tests and measures that are easily integrated into regular doctor visits. EKGs can also be helpful when it comes to risk of sudden cardiac death. To that end, Dr. Lloyd-Jones and his team are undertaking studies to determine precisely which features of the EKG are particularly informative when aiming to assess risk of sudden cardiac death.

“We screen for many diseases, such as colon cancer, that are far less deadly and are completely curable. Only one in 16 men will get colon cancer, compared to one in nine at risk of sudden cardiac death, yet there are entire programs centered around screening for colon cancer and none for sudden cardiac death. From a public health perspective, there is a need for similar screening programs targeting sudden cardiac death,” said Dr. Lloyd-Jones.

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