Surviving a heart attack or cardiac arrest

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Cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of heart attacks and cardiac arrests, kills one Australian every 12 minutesi. We look at what emergency actions can be taken to increase the survival rate for heart attack or cardiac arrest.

Cardiovascular disease includes heart, stroke and blood vessel diseases and is the leading cause of death in Australiai. Cardiovascular disease currently affects one in six Australians, or 3.7 million people, and was responsible for almost a third of all deaths in 2011i.

Heart disease and heart attack

Coronary heart disease, affecting 1.4 million Australiansi, is a major cause of heart attackii. Heart attacks occur when there is a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, causing them to narrow and increasing the risk of a blood clot blocking themiii. Each year, 55,000 Australians experience a heart attack - that's one heart attack every 10 minutesi.

It's important to take the warning signs of a heart attack seriously and call an ambulance on 000 immediately.

There are a number of possible symptoms that may warn you of an impending heart attack, but these vary in intensity and from person to person - some people may experience only mild symptomsiii. Common warning signs include the feeling of pain, pressure or tightness in the chest or other parts of the body, and also feeling short of breath, dizzy or nauseousiii. If you do experience these warning signs, especially if they become progressively worse, it is important to treat them seriously and call an ambulance immediatelyiii. The faster you receive treatment, the less damage your heart suffers and the increased chance you have of recoveryiv.

Cardiac arrest and CPR

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops pumping blood around the bodyv. Cardiac arrest can happen to anyone, and although there are a number of possible causes, including drowning, suffocation, electric shock and drug overdose, the most common cause of cardiac arrest is heart diseasev. Sudden cardiac arrest is sometimes linked with sudden chest pain, and can occur after a heart attackv.

After collapsing from cardiac arrest, the chances of survival diminish each minute that cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or defibrillation is delayedv,vi. If you witness somebody who has suffered a cardiac arrest, it is vital to start CPR - a combination of chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation - and call an ambulance immediatelyv. Remembering the sequence of DRABC - Danger, Response, Airways, Breathing and Circulation - will assist with the correct implementation of CPRv.

Within three to four minutes of cardiac arrest, a person can become brain deadv, and although immediate CPR increases the victim's chances of survival by buying them vital time until an ambulance arrives, defibrillation is the best way to restart the person's heartvi. A person's risk of dying increases by 10% for every minute defibrillation is delayed after their heart stops beatingvi, but if defibrillation is used quickly it can improve the survival rate by up to 75%vii.

Automated External Defibrillators

A recent study showed that in NSW the rate of survival of people who suffer a cardiac arrest outside a hospital is as low as 10%vii. This is particularly poor when compared with cities like Seattle, in the USA, where the survival rate is approximately 50%vii. The Chair of the Australian Resuscitation Council NSW, Professor Paul Middleton, recently claimed that survival rates in Australia would be radically increased with free community-wide CPR training and public access to Automated External Defibrillators (AED) in places like schools, shopping centres and train stationsvii.

Once activated, the AED uses clear voice instructions to assist the user in applying it to the victim of cardiac arrest and also guides them through implementing CPRvi. The device features pads, which are placed on the bare chest of the casualty to monitor their heart ratevi. The AED is fitted with a built-in computer chip that assesses whether defibrillation is necessary, and will not deliver the shock if the person's heart rate is restoredvi.

Although defibrillation has been shown to give the best chance of survival, currently only 2% of cardiac arrest casualties in NSW are treated by a bystander with a defibrillatorviii. This is due to a lack of public training and access to AEDs, as well as liability concernsviii. That said, Queensland and Victoria have already begun developing a state-wide AED network plan similar to Seattle's and there are calls for all Australian states and territories to do the sameviii.

Public access to AEDs could increase the survival rate of cardiac arrest casualties.

Prevention is the best medicine

Although there are many possible triggers of heart attack and cardiac arrest, coronary heart disease is a major causeii,v. Risk factors of heart disease include smoking, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure or diabetes, being overweight or obese and being physically inactiveiii. Reducing these risk factors and having a healthy lifestyle by eating nutritiously and incorporating exercise into your daily life can help to prevent heart diseaseiii.

Unfortunately, even those who are fit and healthy can be victims of a heart attack or cardiac arrestvi,ix. It's important for everyone to know what to do in case of an emergency and completing a first aid training course will give you essential emergency skills. Knowing how to perform CPR and operate an AED could save the life of a stranger or loved one in such an event. Being covered by life insurance may also help protect your loved ones by providing financial security if you suffer a critical illness like a heart attack. For example, Allianz Critical Illness cover may help alleviate the financial strain of not being able to work due to a critical illness, so you will be able to focus on your recovery. Quote online or call Allianz today.

i National Heart Foundation of Australia, Data and statistics: cardiovascular disease, viewed 30 October 2013,

ii British Heart Foundation, Cardiac arrest, viewed 30 October 2013,

iii Better Health Channel 2013, Heart attack, Victorian State Government, viewed 30 October 2013,

iv National Heart Foundation of Australia, Heart attack facts, viewed 30 October 2013,

v Better Health Channel 2013, Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), Victorian State Government, viewed 30 October 2013,

vi St John Ambulance Queensland, Sudden cardiac arrest: the facts, viewed 30 October 2013,

vii Capper S 2013, "Experts urge action as mortality rates jump for NSW cardiac arrest victims", ABC News 25th September, viewed 30 October 2013,

viii Middleton P 2013, "Change of heart vital to stop needless cardiac arrest deaths", Sydney Morning Herald, 25th September, viewed 30 October 2013,

ix Better Health Channel 2013, Heart disease when you're fit and healthy, Victorian State Government, viewed 30 October 2013,'re_fit_and_healthy?open