Many of us stared at our televisions in disbelief this January when the Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after experiencing cardiac arrest. At only 24 years old, Hamlin’s cardiac event was not likely caused by an unhealthy heart, but by the physical blow to his chest when tackling an opponent on the field [1]. This is a phenomenon known as commotio cordis. You may however still be shaken by the news and left wondering, “can I prevent cardiac arrest?” 

What is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest is different from a heart attack. A heart attack happens when blood flow is blocked, but the heart has not stopped beating. Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops beating entirely. CPR or defibrillation must be employed to get the heart to start beating again. They are similar in that cardiac arrest and heart attack can both occur as a result of cardiovascular disease.

Cardiac arrest is most often the result of an arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat. This means that the electrical pulses in the heart are abnormal. Most arrhythmias are fleeting and harmless, but some can cause cardiac arrest. A life-threatening arrhythmia most often occurs in those with pre-existing heart conditions. This includes those with congenital heart disease and those with cardiovascular diseases developed later in life [2].

Who is at Risk of Cardiac Arrest?

The highest risk categories for sudden cardiac arrest are those with ischemic heart disease and/or a recent heart attack, diabetes, heart disease, a prior stroke, high LDL cholesterol, and/or high blood pressure [2]. 

If you fall into any of these categories, your doctor may prescribe you a beta blocker, statin, or another type of medication to reduce your risk of cardiac arrest.

Other risk factors include age (cardiac events are more common later in life), smoking, using recreational/illegal drugs, diabetes, obesity, stress, an inactive lifestyle, and poor nutrition [2]. As some of these factors are controllable, you may be able to change your level of risk by making some lifestyle changes.

What to Do for Someone Suffering a Cardiac Arrest

If you see someone suddenly collapse, call 911. 

Check for a pulse and normal breathing. If you feel no pulse or breath, the person may be suffering from cardiac arrest [2]. 

Once emergency services have been called, start CPR if you have been trained and certified. Alternatively, you may be somewhere with a portable defibrillator that will provide step-by-step instructions. 

Airports, shopping malls, and large stores and restaurants likely have a defibrillator nearby. You can also purchase one to have at home if you are concerned about someone who lives with or visits you being at high risk for cardiac arrest.

What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk?

Unfortunately, there is no black-and-white answer to the question, “can I prevent cardiac arrest?” Fortunately, you can reduce your risk by living a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Those with the lowest risk of heart disease eat healthy, stay active, maintain a healthy weight, don’t smoke (and stay away from smokers), watch and control their cholesterol and blood pressure, drink alcohol only in moderation, and have healthy strategies for managing stress [3].

In terms of eating healthy, there is significant evidence that the NIH’s DASH diet can improve several risk factors for cardiovascular disease. It generally entails reducing saturated fats and sodium and increasing certain heart-supportive nutrients (mainly magnesium, potassium, calcium, and fiber). You can read more about it in our blog article here.

Moderate, regular exercise is so essential for the overall health of your mind and body. The heart is no exception. Cardiovascular exercise that raises your heart rate, oxygen intake, and blood flow, can be achieved with a brisk or uphill walk, jumping jacks, or a game of tennis. Doctors recommend at least 150 minutes per week for optimal heart health [3].

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  1. Edwards, Erica. “Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin’s heart was most likely healthy before collapse”. NBC News. Jan 3, 2023.
  2. Mayo Clinic. “Sudden Cardiac Arrest.” Accessed January 6, 2023.
  3. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “Keep Your Heart Healthy”. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed Jan 6, 2023.