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Sudden cardiac death (SCD) is defined as natural death due to cardiac causes in a person who may or may not have previously recognized heart disease but in whom the time and mode of death are unexpected. The term “sudden,” in the context of SCD, is defined for most clinical and epidemiologic purposes as 1 h or less between a change in clinical status heralding the onset of the terminal clinical event and the cardiac arrest itself. One exception is unwitnessed deaths, in which pathologists may expand the temporal definition to 24 h after the victim was last seen to be alive and stable.

Another exception is the variable interval between cardiac arrest and biological death that results from community-based interventions, following which victims may remain biologically alive for days or even weeks after a cardiac arrest that has resulted in irreversible central nervous system damage. Confusion in terms can be avoided by adhering strictly to definitions of cardiovascular collapse, cardiac arrest, and death (Table 35-1). Although cardiac arrest is often potentially reversible by appropriate and timely interventions, death is biologically, legally, and literally an absolute and irreversible event. Biological death may be delayed by interventions, but the relevant pathophysiologic event remains the sudden and unexpected cardiac arrest. Accordingly, for statistical purposes, deaths that occur during hospitalization or within 30 days after resuscitated cardiac arrest are counted as sudden deaths.


The majority of natural deaths are caused by cardiac disorders. However, it is common for underlying heart diseases—often far advanced—to go unrecognized before the fatal event. As a result, up to two-thirds of all SCDs occur as the first clinical expression of previously undiagnosed disease or in patients with known heart disease, the extent of ...

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