Sudden death in young adults: an autopsy-based series of a population undergoing active surveillance

J Am Coll Cardiol. 2011 Sep 13;58(12):1254-61. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2011.01.049.


Objectives: The purpose of this study was to define the incidence and characterization of cardiovascular cause of sudden death in the young.

Background: The epidemiology of sudden cardiac death (SCD) in young adults is based on small studies and uncontrolled observations. Identifying causes of sudden death in this population is important for guiding approaches to prevention.

Methods: We performed a retrospective cohort study using demographic and autopsy data from the Department of Defense Cardiovascular Death Registry over a 10-year period comprising 15.2 million person-years of active surveillance.

Results: We reviewed all nontraumatic sudden deaths in persons 18 years of age and over. We identified 902 subjects in whom the adjudicated cause of death was of potential cardiac etiology, with a mean age of 38 ± 11 years. The mortality rate for SCD per 100,000 person-years for the study period was 6.7 for males and 1.4 for females (p < 0.0001). Sudden death was attributed to a cardiac condition in 715 (79.3%) and was unexplained in 187 (20.7%). The incidence of sudden unexplained death (SUD) was 1.2 per 100,000 person-years for persons <35 years of age, and 2.0 per 100,000 person-years for those ≥ 35 years of age (p < 0.001). The incidence of fatal atherosclerotic coronary artery disease was 0.7 per 100,000 person-years for those <35 years of age, and 13.7 per 100,000 person-years for those ≥ 35 years of age (p < 0.001).

Conclusions: Prevention of sudden death in the young adult should focus on evaluation for causes known to be associated with SUD (e.g., primary arrhythmia) among persons <35 years of age, with an emphasis on atherosclerotic coronary disease in those ≥ 35 years of age.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Arrhythmias, Cardiac / complications
  • Arrhythmias, Cardiac / epidemiology*
  • Autopsy
  • Cohort Studies
  • Coronary Artery Disease / complications
  • Coronary Artery Disease / epidemiology*
  • Death, Sudden, Cardiac / epidemiology*
  • Death, Sudden, Cardiac / etiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Military Personnel / statistics & numerical data
  • Registries
  • Retrospective Studies