There’s a lot of confusion around cardiac arrest. Most people don’t fully understand what it means, or know the difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack. The two terms are often used interchangeably, as if they’re the same thing. Yet knowing the difference, and what to do, could save someone’s life.
A heart attack happens when one of the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart becomes blocked. The heart is still sending blood around the body, and the person usually remains conscious and is breathing. If the person is left untreated, a heart attack can lead to a cardiac arrest.
Every month, around 2,100 Scots go to hospital with a heart attack, and today, thanks largely to research funded by the British Heart Foundation over the last 50 years, more than 70 per cent of them will survive.
A cardiac arrest is caused by an electrical problem in the heart, which stops it from pumping blood around the body and to the brain. Someone who is having a cardiac arrest will suddenly lose consciousness and will stop breathing or breathe abnormally. Unless immediately treated by CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation, where chest compressions are used to pump blood around the body), they will die within minutes.
There are more than 3,000 cardiac arrests outside of hospital in Scotland every year, but only around one in 20 of those affected will survive. Hundreds of people die every month from a cardiac arrest, and for those living in deprived areas, these shocking statistics are even worse.
If you live in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities, you’re twice as likely to have a cardiac arrest outside of hospital. But it’s less likely that anyone will attempt to save your life, as people in more affluent areas are more likely to receive CPR.
In the most deprived areas, people are 43 per cent less likely to survive to leave hospital compared to people in the least deprived areas.
You’re also more likely to be younger when your cardiac arrest occurs, as the average age of people in these deprived areas is a depressing seven years lower than in the least deprived.
There are many complex reasons for these disparities between deprived and more affluent areas.
People may be more likely to have poorer health when their cardiac arrest occurs. It may also be affected by lifestyle factors such as smoking. It’s clear that more analysis is needed so that we can begin to find ways of improving cardiac arrest survival rates and overcoming the barriers to performing CPR.
There have been positive developments. BHF Scotland is working in partnership with other organisations including the Scottish Ambulance Service and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service as part of Save a Life for Scotland, an initiative which brings together the expertise of different organisations and charities to help equip more people in Scotland with CPR skills.
The target is to reach 500,000 more people by 2020, which is ambitious but should be achievable and would save around 1,000 additional lives.
There’s more in the paper ‘Initial results of the Scottish out-of-hospital cardiac arrest data linkage project, published by The Scottish Government in August.
At BHF Scotland, we’re helping to achieve this by spreading the word about CPR as widely as possible, especially to young people, who’ll be our next generation of lifesavers. We’ve provided free CPR kits to hundreds of secondary schools and community groups, and we’re working in partnership with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to provide these essential resources in 356 fire stations across the country to give as many people as possible the tools to learn CPR.
We all have a part to play in tackling Scotland’s poor cardiac arrest survival rate. You do too. If you suspect someone is having a heart attack or a cardiac arrest, call 999 straight away.
Then would you know how to perform CPR to save a life? Most out-of-hospital cardiac arrests happen in the home, so it could be the life of someone you love. You can find out more and watch our CPR videos at bhf.org.uk/cpr or visit savealife.scot to find out where to learn CPR where you are.
Whatever you do, don’t do nothing.
James Cant is director of BHF Scotland.