Blacks are more likely than whites to experience sudden cardiac arrest and at a much earlier age, according to research published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

Researchers also found that blacks had higher rates than whites of well-established risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including diabetes (52 percent vs. 33 percent), high blood pressure (77 percent vs. 65 percent), and chronic kidney failure (34 percent vs. 19 percent).

Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions and blood is no longer pumped throughout the body. Sudden cardiac arrest is a major cause of death in the United States, contributing to 300,000-350,000 deaths annually and accounting for about 50 percent of all cardiovascular deaths.

“Cardiac arrest is recognized by the ‘bad company’ it keeps, so the mantra has been: prevent coronary artery disease, prevent sudden cardiac death,” said Sumeet S. Chugh, M.D., lead author of the study and associate director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles.

“As healthcare professionals, we should be aware of a broader spectrum of risk factors for our black patients. If we only focus on reducing coronary artery disease, we are unlikely to offer them the same benefit we offer white patients.”

For the study, researchers collected data on 1,745 white and 179 black residents in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area who experienced sudden cardiac arrest between 2002 and 2012.

Researchers found:

  • Blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to experience sudden cardiac arrest.
  • On average, blacks were more than 6 years younger than whites at the time of sudden cardiac arrest. Among blacks, the majority were younger than 65 when their sudden cardiac arrest occurred; among whites, the majority were older than 65.
  • Blacks who experience sudden cardiac arrest had the same rates as whites of coronary artery disease, long considered the strongest predictor of risk. However, three non-coronary heart problems were significantly more prevalent among blacks than whites: congestive heart failure (43 percent vs. 34 percent), left ventricular hypertrophy (77 percent vs. 58 percent), and a longer QT interval, indicating a problem with the heart’s electrical system.

“In black patients, we found our study reinforces the importance of a healthy lifestyle to avoid developing certain sudden cardiac arrest risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic kidney disease,” Chugh said.

Researchers believe the study results should be replicated in other communities and recently expanded their study to Ventura County, California, which has a large Latino population.