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5 Common Causes of Sudden Death and How to Protect Yourself

Dropping dead of hidden health conditions is rare but not unheard of.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

We've all heard stories about the apparently healthy person who dies suddenly at a relatively young age with no warning. Such deaths are rare, according to one research paper. But they do happen. Some are the consequence of suicide, accidents and unexpected injuries. Most are the result of some kind of previously undiagnosed cardiovascular disease. To protect yourself, it's key to have regular checkups; take care when driving; avoid tobacco, drugs and alcohol; eat a healthy diet; exercise; know your family health history; and manage your stress levels. Here are five of the top health-related causes of sudden death.


Sudden Cardiac Death


Researchers define sudden cardiac death as that which happens within an hour of symptom onset, attributable to a cardiovascular cause. Underlying coronary artery disease is the most common cause of such death, which happens when the heart suddenly stops beating.The most common causes are related to lifestyle issues, including obesity and alcohol abuse. But some deaths occur in seemingly healthy people with no previous symptoms.



Fatal arrhythmia — in which the heart ceases to beat normally — is the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in patients younger than 35. In children, that can result from a congenital abnormality; in older patients, it may result from disease, heart defects or undiagnosed syndromes.


Poisoning or Overdose


Young vomiting woman near sink in bathroom

Most deaths among people 20 to 24 that fall under the category of unintentional injury result from poisoning related to drugs, including narcotics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Stated more plainly, young people are at risk of dying suddenly of drug overdoses. That has become more apparent as the highly lethal drug fentanyl has become more common in the illicit substances used by addicts.


Brain Events


Death from a so-called cerebrovascular accident occurs when blood flow to a part of the brain stops because of a blood vessel rupture or obstruction. Death can also occur suddenly from an intracranial bleed, either as the result of trauma or from an underlying condition such as an aneurysm, leading to a stroke. A person at risk for a ruptured aneurysm may show no symptoms preceding the rupture. Others may present with headaches, mental issues or other neurologic symptoms.


Pulmonary Embolism

Woman lying in the bed and suffering from leg muscle cramps

This occurs when a clot obstructs a blood vessel in the lung and blocks blood flow. If the clot is large, it can cause the cardiovascular system to shut down. The clot can migrate from elsewhere in the body, such as a leg. It's one of the risks of long-haul air travel, during which clots can form in the lower extremities, called deep vein thrombosis. Doctors advise wearing compression socks during flights longer than four hours or moving around during the flight to get blood flowing. Ask your doctor how to prevent it before you take your flight. Symptoms of pulmonary embolism include difficulty breathing, fast or irregular heartbeat, chest pain, anxiety, coughing up blood, lightheadedness or fainting. But pulmonary embolism can occur in people who show no previous symptoms: Death is the only symptom in about a quarter of cases.

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