An article appearing today in JAMA suggests that maintaining a healthy lifestyle—not smoking, exercising regularly, maintaining a low body weight, and eating a Mediterranean-style diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish, and moderate alcohol consumption—may substantially reduce a woman’s risk of sudden cardiac death.
Each year up to 310 000 people in the United States experience sudden cardiac death. These heart-related fatalities are usually caused when the heart stops beating, usually due to an abnormal heart rhythm—unlike a heart attack, which occurs when an artery supplying blood to the heart becomes blocked. Sudden cardiac death accounts for more than half of all cardiac deaths, and for women, up to 75% of sudden cardiac deaths occur in those not considered at high risk. For such women, a healthy lifestyle may reduce the risk by nearly 80%.
Lead author Stephanie E. Chiuve, ScD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, discusses her team’s findings:
“In women, an important risk factor for sudden cardiac arrest is having a history of coronary heart disease or having a prior heart attack. But sudden cardiac death in women occurs more frequently without any diagnosis of coronary heart disease, so it’s very good news that a healthy lifestyle can prevent sudden cardiac death.
“Not smoking is most strongly associated with reducing sudden cardiac death risk. For the other 3 risk reduction factors [exercise, weight control, diet], what’s important is to try to adhere to as many as possible—the more [of them] you adhere to, the lower your risk of sudden cardiac death. But today, while more than 80% of women don’t smoke, less than half maintain a healthy body weight, and less than a quarter exercise regularly.
“To put the risk into perspective, more women are concerned about dying from breast cancer, but more women die from sudden cardiac death than breast cancer. It’s the number 1 killer among women.”