The death rate from cardiac arrest rose among young American adults in the 1990’s, despite advances in research and medicine. They were 10 percent higher in men and 32 percent higher in women.

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. It is still rare for people under 35 and accounts for only one percent of the heart attack deaths, but the trend upwards is troubling to researchers.

It’s believed that the increase is caused by obesity, smoking and drug abuse. Cocaine, especially, can be a powerful trigger of cardiac arrest. Doctors are trying to figure out why the increase has been three times faster in women. It also went up 19 percent in blacks compared to 14 percent in whites.

“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, of the Center for Disease Control, agrees. “We need to increase awareness. Dying suddenly is not just an old folks’ problem. It can happen to young people, too.”

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