Aim: sudden coronary death (SCD) in older individuals is generally associated with extensive coronary atherosclerosis, although it may be the first manifestation of ischaemic heart disease. In younger age-groups, SCD may occur in the presence of less severe disease. We sought to (1) examine the extent of coronary atherosclerosis in young victims of SCD compared with age- and sex-matched controls, (2) analyse the composition of atherosclerotic plaques in these patients, (3) identify the predominant mechanism of SCD, and (4) evaluate the possibility of detecting this mechanism on the basis of morphologic plaque features, in particular presence and amount of lipid accumulation and calcific deposits.
Methods and results: coronary arteries were obtained at autopsy from 28 victims of SCD under age 50 with no prior clinical manifestation of ischaemic heart disease (IHD) and no myocardial scar formation and from 16 age- and sex-matched subjects dying of noncardiac causes out of hospital. Sections of all available major coronary arteries were cut in 5-mm intervals to yield a total of 1357 histologic sections, which were analysed using digitised planimetry. Victims of SCD had significantly more major coronary arteries per subject with luminal area narrowing > or = 75% than controls (on average, 2.1 vs. 0.2). Plaque area per histologic section was 5.1 +/- 2.1 mm(2) in SCD cases and 2.0 +/- 0.9 mm(2) in controls (P < 0.001). The major constituent of all plaques was fibrous tissue. Lipid core area per section was 0.49 +/- 0.59 mm(2) in SCD cases and 0.004 +/- 0.01 mm(2) in controls (P < 0.001), and calcified plaque area was 0.18 +/- 0.19 mm(2) in SCD cases and 0.02 +/- 0.05 mm(2) in controls (P < 0.001), both defining significant differences between SCD cases and controls. Arterial thrombosis, most often with underlying plaque rupture was the mechanism of SCD in > 80% of the cases. Considering histologic sections with > or = 50 and with > or = 75% area stenosis, plaque rupture was independently predicted by lipid core area. Calcific deposits were a frequent feature of plaque rupture but were only associated with it in univariate analysis.
Conclusions: the extent and severity of coronary atherosclerosis in young victims of SCD as the first manifestation of IHD was substantially greater than in age-and sex-matched controls and comparable with that previously reported in SCD cases with a broader age range. Lipid core and calcified plaque areas provided for excellent separation between the two groups, which may have implications for identifying persons at increased risk for SCD by non invasive visualisation and assessment of the coronary arteries.