SAN ANTONIO The death rate from cardiac arrest rose surprisingly among young American adults in the 1990s, climbing 10 percent in men and 32 percent in women, federal officials said Thursday.
Cardiac arrest is still rare under age 35, accounting for just 1 percent of all deaths from this cause. But experts say the newly recognized increase is troubling and almost certainly represents a real trend and not a statistical blip.
Researchers believe a major reason for the increase is the epidemic of obesity, along with increased smoking and drug abuse, particularly cocaine, which can be a powerful trigger of cardiac arrest.
Doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted the first-ever survey of cardiac arrest in people ages 15 to 34. They released the figures in San Antonio at an epidemiology conference of the American Heart Assn.
Across the United States, the number of fatal cardiac arrests in this age group rose from 2,710 in 1989 to 3,000 in 1996. In all, 23,320 young adults died, almost three-quarters of them men.
"It's a very scary finding, and it deserves a lot of attention," said Dr. Murray Mittleman of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "If it is a behavioral factor, such as smoking or illicit drug use, that will be very important to tease out."
Dr. George Mensah, chief of the CDC's cardiovascular division, said that doctors have traditionally considered cardiac arrest to be exclusively a problem of older people.
"We need to increase awareness," he said. "Dying suddenly is not just an old folks' problem. It can happen to young people, too. Three thousand deaths are not trivial. These are people who should not die suddenly."
Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly quits pumping in an organized way, stopping blood circulation. Unless victims are quickly revived by defibrillators, they soon die or suffer irreversible brain damage.