In a survey released on Oct. 17, the Heart Rhythm Society, along with Ipsos Healthcare, reported that sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) claims 350,000 lives in the United States each year, at a rate of nearly 1,000 people per day. Despite the fact that SCA is a leading cause of death in the United States, only 18 percent of African Americans were aware of the condition, compared with 24 percent of the larger population. Physicians also demonstrated a startling lack of knowledge about SCA, with 90 percent of African Americans saying their doctors had never talked to them about their possible SCA risk.

Because of a cascade of risk factors — higher rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity, and other health problems — African Americans also have a higher risk of SCA. “African Americans’ increased chances of losing their lives to SCA may also be attributed to a lack of access to proper care,” Walter Clair, M.D., a cardiologist at Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute in Nashville adds.

The Heart Rhythm Society-Ipsos survey illustrates his point. The survey found that even when African Americans were diagnosed with a problem that might lead to SCA, they were less likely to be given the optimum preventive treatment: an implanted defibrillator (a device to regulate the heart’s rhythm) or appropriate medications.

Many African Americans may also be less concerned about their risk of SCA because they think it’s the same as a heart attack, but that’s not the case. Understanding how SCA is different can help save lives. “Think of it this way,” Clair says. “A heart attack is essentially a plumbing problem. It occurs because one or more of the blood vessels that bring blood to the heart are clogged. During a heart attack, the heart may continue beating.” A heart attack may also be mild, moderate or severe, and many people survive.

“Sudden cardiac arrest is an electrical problem that interrupts the rhythm of the heart,” Clair explains. “When it occurs, the heart stops beating and stops pumping blood to the rest of the body. Think of it as the electricity being turned off in the body.” And only about 5 percent of SCA victims survive.