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HomeHealth and MedicalThe Difference Between Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

The Difference Between Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

BRONNY JAMES, THE son of NBA superstar LeBron James, is recovering in a hospital after experiencing cardiac arrest. The 18-year-old collapsed during a workout this week at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he plans to play basketball and is said to be in stable condition and out of the ICU.

James is the latest young athlete to suffer cardiac arrest recently. Fellow USC player Vincent Iwuchukwu had a cardiac arrest in 2022, and Cartier Woods, a high school basketball player in Detroit, died during a game after suffering a cardiac arrest earlier this year. In January, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during a game.

Though James’ case is another high-profile instance of cardiac arrest, Michael Ackerman, M.D., a genetic cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic and an expert in cardiac arrest and sudden death in athletes, says, “These kinds of events of sudden cardiac arrest can happen to anyone, anywhere, and you don’t have to be an athlete. We’re not seeing an increase in these events, as opposed to increased awareness.”

Every year, more than 350,000 people experience cardiac arrest outside of a hospital, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Immediate CPR or automatic external defibrillator (AED) use can dramatically improve survival rates. Older people and men are most at risk for cardiac arrest, but about 2,000 seemingly healthy people under age 25 die from it every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Athletes account for nearly 40 percent of cardiac arrest in youth, according to the AHA 2023 Statistical Update. The organization says it continues to study and fund research on cardiac conditions in athletes.

While James’ medical team works to treat his condition and identify what caused the cardiac arrest, Dr. Ackerman says it’s crucial to understand your family history and recognize the signs of cardiac arrest—and other heart conditions.

“Whenever this happens, it’s very unsettling,” Dr. Ackerman says. “That close call just happened to the fittest of the fit. Was there a warning? We don’t know.”

Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack

The term cardiac arrest is often used interchangeably with a heart attack—but, the two aren’t the same. As AHA explains: “Cardiac arrest is an electrical problem. A heart attack is a circulation problem.”

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart encounters a problem and suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating. Often, the heart starts beating irregularly, interfering with its ability to pump blood properly. Dr. Ackerman says dozens of heart conditions could lead to cardiac arrest.

Swift action is vital during a cardiac arrest, says Robert Segal, M.D., a board-certified cardiologist and founder of Manhattan Cardiology at the Medical Offices of Manhattan. “Learning how to do CPR and how to use an AED can help save lives in an emergency.”

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked, preventing oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart. If the artery isn’t unblocked quickly, it can start to die.

Sometimes, one condition can lead to the other, Dr. Ackerman says. A heart attack can trigger a dangerous rhythm that causes sudden cardiac arrest.

More young people are experiencing heart attacks. Research by the American College of Cardiology released in 2019 shows that among people who have heart attacks at a younger age (under 50), 20 percent were 40 or younger. The rate of young people having heart attacks has increased by 2 percent a year for the past decade.

Dr. Ackerman attributes the link to the obesity epidemic, which can increase the risk for metabolic syndrome, like high blood pressure and cholesterol, and heart disease.

Signs of Cardiac Arrest

With cardiac arrest, many people report no symptoms or warnings and may collapse suddenly and lose consciousness. Leading up to the event, some people have:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Heart palpitations

If you’ve ever fainted while working out or just randomly, Dr. Ackerman urges you to talk to your doctor. It could be a sign of a heart condition.

Signs of a Heart Attack

Heart attack symptoms can vary, and the onset can be gradual or sudden. They include:

  • Chest pain that feels like tightness, squeezing, or pressure
  • Pain that spreads to the shoulder, arm, neck, or back
  • Cold sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Heartburn
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea

Are You At Risk for a Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest?

Family history is the biggest risk factor for cardiac arrest. Dr. Ackerman says if anyone in your family has had a sudden cardiac arrest or just died suddenly, it could indicate a genetic connection.

And, if you’ve ever felt faint while working out or during another activity, he recommends getting screened for a heart condition.

Risk factors for all heart diseases include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • An inactive lifestyle

“Heart attacks and cardiac failure may seem like health problems that only affect older people, but young people can also be at risk,” Dr. Segal says. “Living a heart-healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce the risk of heart disease and its effects.”

That means eating a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean meats, and limiting processed foods, sugar, and salt, he says. Exercise regularly and listen to your body, especially if you feel tired or short of breath during physical activity.

How Are Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack Treated?

Treating cardiac arrest starts with immediate resuscitation via CPR and resetting the heart’s rhythm using an AED. Then, doctors perform tests to identify what caused the cardiac arrest and the best treatments, which could be medications, surgery, or another procedure.

Dr. Ackerman says it seems like James’ condition was recognized early, and the “chain of survival” of “call, push, shock” was activated to resuscitate him. Now, his medical team will work to uncover the cause and next steps.

Treatment for heart attacks also depends on an individual’s specific case but could include medications or surgery.

“Heart health is important no matter what age you are,” Dr. Segal says. “Young people can greatly lower their chance of heart attacks and cardiac death by being aware, taking action, and making healthy living choices. This will help them live longer and better lives.”

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Erica Sweeney

Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.

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