Sudden death in young people is rare and for those under the age of 35 is often due to hidden heart defects or abnormalities. These deaths often occur during or shortly after physical activity or sports. The cause of the recent tragedy of Britney Murphy’s death has yet to be determined, and we all remember the sudden death of Reggie Lewis of the Boston Celtics during basketball practice.
The leading causes for sudden death for young people in the United States are:
- Undiagnosed or undetected cardiac problems
- Automobile accidents
- Respiratory issues (including asthma related)
- Risky behavior (Trauma)
In the United States it is rare for a young person to spontaneously expire. Detecting heart disease particularly in the young isn’ easy. Some specific causes of cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death (SCD) in young people include:
- Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy(HCM). This is a disease in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick (hypertrophied). The thickened heart muscle can block the outflow of blood and lead to life threatening arrhythmias.
- Myocarditis. This is an inflammation of the heart muscle (myocardium). The disease can be from an infection or from a complication of an underlying illness, injury or toxic reactions to drugs. The severity of the disease can vary widely but in extreme cases be life threatening.
- Long QT Syndrome(LQTS). This condition can be inherited or a disorder caused by drugs. The disease produces a lengthening of the interval from the QRS to the T wave on an EKG. This abnormality can lead to lethal heart rhythms such as ventricular tachycardia. If untreated this can result in unexplained fainting and death.
- Coronary Artery Abnormalities. Sometimes coronary arteries are connected abnormally to the heart. This is a congenital (born that way) condition. During exercise or exertion the arteries become compressed and do not provide proper blood flow to the heart.
Estimates of sudden cardiac arrests in the US range from 250,000 to 450,000. Most of these deaths are in older adults and rarely occur in young, previously healthy people. However cardiac arrests are on the rise in the young. Researchers believe that one reason might be the epidemic of obesity along with increased smoking and drug abuse, particularly cocaine.
Worldwide the most common causes of death for young people (10-24) are road accidents, pregnancy and childbirth complications, suicide, violence, AIDS and tuberculosis. In 2004, 2.6 million young people died. 10% of these deaths were from traffic accidents, all respiratory infections including tuberculosis accounted for 11% and 6.3% resulted from suicide, 6% from violence and 5.5% from AIDS. Among girls death due to childbirth complications was at 15% of all young person mortality rates. Road accidents were the top cause of death among adolescent males at 14%. Because many of these conditions are preventable the World Health Organization(WHO) is calling on all countries, but specially low and middle-income countries to make investments to improve access to information and services for young people to avoid risky behaviors that can lead to death.
Get more information from groups to help prevent sudden death in young people at the following organizations.