Although nearly every race or ethnicity faces a higher risk for certain chronic conditions compared to whites, African-Americans stand the highest risk for developing these diseases and dying as a result. A recent study conducted at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute found African-Americans are twice as likely to suffer a sudden cardiac arrest compared to Caucasians.

Sudden cardiac arrest is often confused with a heart attack, but the two are not interchangeable. According to the American Heart Association, a heart attack occurs when oxygen-rich blood does not reach the heart due to a blocked artery. There is warning leading up to a heart attack. Sudden cardiac arrest, however, occurs suddenly and without warning.

"We do not know why African-Americans are more likely to have sudden cardiac arrest," Dr. Kyndaron Reinier, research scientist in the Arrhythmia Research Laboratory at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, said in a statement. "It could be due to the higher burden of illnesses that increase risk of heart disease, like hypertension and diabetes. Or it could be genetic because we know that certain health conditions are more prevalent in particular groups of people. Or, the reason could be environmental, such as access to good health care. But there is no doubt that there are differences between the races when it comes to clinical outcomes."

Reinier and her colleagues compared the medical records of patients from different races who suffered from a fatal condition using the Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study. Sixteen hospitals from the Portland, Ore., area provided medical records for 126 African-Americans, and 1,262 Caucasians with sudden cardiac arrests who were treated between Feb. 1, 2002 and Jan. 31, 2012. The goal of the project, which has been ongoing for over a decade, is to determine the causes of sudden cardiac arrest.

Findings showed that the incidence of sudden cardiac arrest was 84 per 100,000 Caucasian men compared to 175 per 100,000 African-American men. African-American women, on the other hand, faced an incidence rate of 90 per 100,000 compared to 40 per 100,000 for Caucasian women. Overall, African-Americans were around six years younger when they suffered their sudden cardiac arrest. Fifty-two percent of African-American people from the study also suffered from diabetes compared to 33 percent of Caucasian people.

"Because sudden cardiac arrest is usually fatal, we have to prevent it before it strikes," added Dr. Sumeet Chugh, senior author and associate director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute and the Pauline and Harold Price Professor of Cardiac Electrophysiology. "These findings suggest the possibility that when it comes to prevention of sudden cardiac death, different races and ethnicities may not necessarily be painted with one broad brush."

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles recently uncovered evidence showing that implantable devices, such as implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) and cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) devices, can help save just as many African-Americans as Caucasians. Reinier and Chugh’s research team is looking to move their project to Southern California to help gain a better understanding of sudden cardiac arrest risk in more racially and ethnically diverse communities.

Source: Nichols G, Reinier K, Chugh S, et al. Distinctive Clinical Profile of Blacks versus Whites Presenting with Sudden Cardiac Arrest. Circulation. 2015.