When rock legend Tom Petty, the celebrated frontman of the Heartbreakers, passed away on October 2, many wondered what would cause a seemingly healthy man to die at the relatively young age of 66. A dynamic singer and guitar player who wrote hits like “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down,” Petty was loved by his fans around the world for his talents and easygoing temperament, which he maintained despite being a superstar.
According to news reports, Petty was found unconscious and not breathing the night before his death having suffered from full cardiac arrest. After learning he showed no brain activity and weighing the direness of the situation, Petty’s family reportedly decided to take him off life support.
But what exactly is cardiac arrest, anyway?
A leading cause of death in the United States, the American Heart Association (AHA) describes cardiac arrest as the sudden loss of heart function in a person who may or may not have been diagnosed with heart disease. Symptoms are immediate and drastic: loss of consciousness, no breathing and no pulse. About half of the time other signs and symptoms precede sudden cardiac arrest, including chest pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and flu-like symptoms. But it’s important to remember that sudden cardiac arrest often occurs with no warning.
Caused by a malfunction of the heart’s electrical system, the condition causes the heart to beat erratically. The most serious cardiac rhythm disturbance is called ventricular fibrillation (VFib). This occurs when the two lower heart chambers beat chaotically and fail to adequately pump blood. VFib is a common cause of shockable cardiac arrest. When the heart isn’t pumping blood, the body’s organs struggle to function due to the lack of oxygen that is no longer being moved throughout the body by the blood. That’s what causes a person to lose consciousness and a pulse, says the AHA.
Cardiac arrest can be reversed if the right steps are taken within minutes of it happening. Performing Basic Life Support or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on the person and using a defibrillator to shock the heart back to a normal rhythm can safe his or her life if done quickly. Both techniques can be learned in any AHA CPR/AED and first aid training class taught by an AHA certified CPR AED instructor.
Some may confuse cardiac arrest with a heart attack, but the two are distinctly different. A heart attack takes place when a blockage in a person’s blood vessels keeps blood from flowing to the heart, which can cause the heart muscle to die. Heart attacks can cause cardiac arrest, though, depending on the affected area of the heart muscle. Cardiac cannot cause a heart attack.
Photo By Ирина Лепнёва - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63558070