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Tuesday
Mar012011

Why Heart Attack, Cardiac Arrest Is Rare But Possible in Kids

(MADISON, Wisc.) -- While lethal heart problems in otherwise healthy children are rare, doctors say there are a number of conditions that could explain a sudden cardiac death or life-threatening heart attack in young patients.

The first important distinction to make is between a heart attack and cardiac arrest, says Dr. Amy Peterson, a pediatric cardiologist from American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, Wisc.

Heart attack occurs when there is an insufficient amount of blood delivering oxygen to the heart and part or all of the heart muscle begins to die. This could be due to blockages in the arteries, heart disease, or structural abnormalities of the heart muscle or the arteries. Cardiac arrest, on the other hand, refers simply to a heart that has lost its rhythm and stops beating, which could occur for a number of different reasons, she says.

"In general, heart attack in children is extraordinarily rare and when kids present with chest pain it is at the bottom of the list of things we suspect," Peterson says.

Cardiac arrest is less rare but still very uncommon, she says, but there are a number of ways that parents can be on the lookout for undiagnosed heart conditions that may cause a problem.

True heart attack in children can occur in rare circumstances where there is a genetic predisposition to exceptionally high cholesterol. In this case, a child who may or may not be overweight can suffer from arterial blockages similar to those which cause heart attack in adults with hypercholesterolemia, Peterson says. In these cases, a family history of severe high cholesterol is the best indicator that a child might be at risk for this kind of problem.

Other reasons for heart attack would include a structural abnormality of the heart or arteries that a child would be born with.

So what can a parent do to protect their child against sudden cardiac death?

In some cases, diagnosis can be incredibly difficult as the first symptom of a problem will be cardiac arrest or sudden death. Examples of this have been widely publicized in cases of teen athletes who drop dead seemingly out of nowhere on the field or court. While these instances are devastating, Dr. Rene Herlong, a pediatric cardiologist with Singer Heart & Vascular Institute, urges parents to not become overly worried that this might happen to their child as it "is rare as walking outside and getting hit by lightning."

But if your child suffers from chest pain, especially during exercise, or faints during exercise, this is something that should be checked out by a medical professional as it could be a sign of a heart condition, Herlong adds.

Knowing the family history and being aware of any genetic predispositions towards heart conditions is one of the best things a parent can do, Peterson says. And when a heart attack or cardiac arrest occurs, it is essential to give the child basic life support in the form of CPR or defibrillation, if a defibrillator is available, as soon as possible until advanced life support from medical professionals arrives.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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