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Lisa Marie Presley Dies After Cardiac Arrest—Here's What Causes the Condition

What doctors want you to know about sudden cardiac arrest.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Lisa Marie Presley was transported to a local hospital on Thursday, January 12 after suffering sudden cardiac arrest—and died hours later, at the age of 54. The singer-songwriter had collapsed at her home in Calabasas, California, just two days after attending the Golden Globes ceremony on January 10. "It is with a heavy heart that I must share the devastating news that my beautiful daughter Lisa Marie has left us," her mother Priscilla Presley, 77, said in a statement to PEOPLE. "She was the most passionate strong and loving woman I have ever known. We ask for privacy as we try to deal with this profound loss. Thank you for the love and prayers. At this time there will be no further comment."

According to the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, paramedics immediately administered CPR and managed to regain a pulse before Presley was taken to the hospital. So what exactly is cardiac arrest? "People often confuse sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) with heart attack. While SCA can follow a heart attack, these two heart problems are entirely different," says Rajat Jhanjee, MD, MSEE, FACP, FACC, FHRS. "During a heart attack — also called an acute myocardial infarction — blood is blocked from flowing to the heart. As a result, part of the heart muscle can be damaged or killed. Usually, the blockage is caused by a blood clot formed from the buildup of fatty deposits in the heart's arteries.

"Cardiac arrest, however, is caused by a malfunction in the heart's electrical system. Often, an abnormal heart rhythm, called an arrhythmia, is to blame. When the heart's rhythm is disrupted completely, it fails to deliver blood to the brain and other vital organs. Unless the heartbeat is restored within minutes, death occurs. A device that sends an electrical shock to the heart, called a defibrillator, can be used to get the heart beating again." Here are the most common causes of cardiac arrest, according to doctors. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Causes Cardiac Arrest?

overweight woman at home lying on the floor, laptop in front of her, prepared to work out on mat according to video

The most common cause of cardiac arrest is linked to heart disease. "Artery blockage from heart disease is the No. 1 culprit in heart attack and cardiac arrest," says Dr. Jhanjee. "When lack of blood flow damages the heart, the resulting scar tissue can wreak havoc on the heart's electrical system and lead to SCA. In fact, most people who experience cardiac arrest have heart disease and may have unknowingly had a heart attack at an earlier time. Conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity also frequently play a role in both heart attack and SCA.

"Cardiac arrest can also be caused by severe physical stress from major blood loss, lack of oxygen or low levels of critical minerals like potassium and magnesium; an electrical shock; structural heart abnormalities from inherited disorders; and heart defects or infections."


Sleep Apnea and Cardiac Arrest

man sleeping with apnea and CPAP machine

Obstructive sleep apnea—where a person stops breathing for more than ten seconds at least five times an hour—can lead to cardiac arrest, doctors warn. "When you have obstructive sleep apnea, not only are you likely to wake up with a headache and fall asleep during the day, but you're also at risk of dying suddenly," says cardiologist Bruce Wilkoff, MD. "For most patients, sudden death is not caused by a heart attack, but by abnormal heart rhythms."

Researchers believe sleep apnea can cause abnormal heart rhythms and increase inflammation. "Sleep apnea may lower oxygen levels, activate the fight-or-flight response and change pressure in the chest when the upper airway closes, stressing the heart mechanically," Dr. Wilkoff says. "Not only will getting treated for sleep apnea reduce your risk of a dangerous cardiac event. It will make you sleep better, and feel better, all around."


Smoking and Cardiac Arrest

no smoking sign

Research from the Nurses' Health Study published in Circulation: Arrhythmia & Electrophysiology shows the risk of cardiac arrest is increased in smokers. "Cigarette smoking is a known risk factor for sudden cardiac death, but until now, we didn't know how the quantity and duration of smoking affected the risk among apparently healthy women, nor did we have long-term follow-up," said lead investigator Roopinder Sandhu, MD, MPH, in an AHA press release.

The study showed that women who quit smoking reduced their sudden cardiac death risk. "Sudden cardiac death is often the first sign of heart disease among women, so lifestyle changes that reduce that risk are particularly important," said Dr. Sandhu. "Our study shows that cigarette smoking is an important modifiable risk factor for sudden cardiac death among all women. Quitting smoking before heart disease develops is critical."


Inherited Conditions and Exercise

drink heart attack

Certain genetic factors which cause deadly arrhythmias can increase the risk of cardiac arrest—for example, when an otherwise healthy young athlete is suddenly seriously ill. "Much of my research is about the risk of exercise when you have these diseases in both the immediate and long term," says Kristina Hermann Haugaa, MD, PhD

"Cases where well-trained young people suddenly suffer a fatal cardiac arrest while running a marathon or playing a ball sport was long considered a paradox, but my group at Oslo University Hospital was one of the first to show that it's not purely a matter of bad luck: a lot of exercise exacerbates some of these inherited heart diseases, but not all. On the other hand, exercise has important benefits – so there's a lot to investigate here. We're also researching how the diseases are affected by other sorts of efforts, for example pregnancy, something that also varies markedly for different diagnoses."


Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs

doctor holding heart

Cardiac arrest can be fatal if not treated immediately, which is why warning signs should never be ignored. "Sudden cardiac arrest shouldn't be confused with a heart attack, which is brought on by a disturbance in blood flow rather than our electrical current," says Geisinger electrophysiologist Faiz Subzposh, MD. "Studies have shown that over half of sudden cardiac arrest patients had warning signs before their incident, but those signs can vary widely between people. Knowing the full range of signs might help patients gauge their risk and give us a head start on treatment."

Warning signs include chest pain (more commonly reported by men), shortness of breath (more common with women), fatigue, a racing heart, unexplained fainting, and dizziness. According to Dr. Subzposh, only one in five patients who notice those symptoms report them. "When the warning signs are seemingly minor, flu-like symptoms, it can be hard to take them seriously. But, on the other hand, we don't want to create anxiety."

Other risk factors for cardiac arrest:

  • A family history of heart disease
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Substance abuse

People who have those risk factors should take extra precautions. "Regularly taking prescribed medication is a vital first step to protecting heart health," says Dr. Subzposh. "But your doctor may also recommend an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) device which senses and prevents cardiac episodes."

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan
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