Registry reveals high rate of sudden cardiac death in young Australians

By Michael Woodhead

4 Jun 2020

The first data from an Australian registry of sudden cardiac deaths have shown that rates are much higher than expected in people aged under 50.

Figures for Victoria released by the registry how that about 750 people aged under 50 experienced a sudden cardiac arrest over the 12-month period from April 2019, with 660 of them dying.

Project leader  Associate Professor Andre La Gerche, a cardiologist at the Baker Institute, said researchers had predicted only about 400 such deaths, and the figures showed that sudden cardiac death was one of the main causes of death among people under 50, on a par with suicide.

“Unexplained cardiac death is killing more young Victorians than breast, bowel or lung cancer,” he said.

“What’s hard is that while we can clearly see how cancer or road trauma deaths can be prevented, and have developed strong community health campaigns to do so, when it comes to unexplained cardiac death we remain largely in the dark.

Professor La Gerche noted that cardiovascular deaths have declined dramatically over the last 40 years for older Australians, but remain largely unchanged for those under 50.

And most of the younger people who died from sudden cardiac arrest did not have the typical risk-factors for heart disease, nor any warning signs.

“In general, they are healthy, active and have had no reason to seek medical attention. It almost always comes as a massive shock.

“That’s why projects like this registry are critical in building a better understanding of how these deaths are caused, and most importantly, how they can be prevented … we need far more information to understand what mechanisms are at play here, including genetic factors.”

Professor La Gerche said that much of the Victorian data gathered in the past 12 months still needs to be analysed, but there have already been some surprising insights, such as narrower gender differences than reported elsewhere.

“Some international evidence has suggested that men are five times more likely to die of an unexplained cardiac death than women. But the gender breakdown of our Victorian under-50s data from the past 12 months looks more like three men to every one woman,” he said.

As the registry moves forward into its second year of data collection, Professor La Gerche said the focus would be on gathering as much information as possible through the families affected, as well as the small number of people lucky enough to survive a sudden cardiac arrest.

“This is really the first opportunity families have to seek answers about their loved one’s death, and how they might be able to prevent it happening to themselves or someone else,” he said.

“Survivors also have access to psychological counselling through this project, an often overlooked but important service, which is proving particularly helpful for those who experience PTSD after such an event.”

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