RCPE Press Release

23 November 2010

Doctors meeting at a conference organised by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), will, today (Tuesday 23 November 2010), urge the public and medical staff to be much more vigilant in seeking to prevent sudden cardiac death in children and young people – a ‘hidden’ disease which causes an estimated 600 sudden deaths in children and young people in the UK each year.

Sudden cardiac death is an umbrella term for a range of underlying, inherited, forms of heart disease which if not detected early can result in sudden death. Sudden cardiac death affects 2 in 100,000 people under age 35 each year (equivalent to 600 deaths in the UK annually).

Due to the nature of sudden cardiac death, those affected can often go for many years without outwardly displaying symptoms which would be commonly recognised as requiring medical treatment or investigation. Other individuals may be seen by medical staff following loss of consciousness initially thought to be a faint or an epileptic seizure, when such symptoms can in rare cases be a potential predictor of sudden cardiac death. In some young people sudden cardiac death can be preceded by other events such as sporting activity which, whilst not the cause of death, triggers the potentially fatal change in heart rhythm associated with the underlying condition. In order to identify those at risk, screening has been proposed. In recognition of this, the Scottish Government piloted a two-year project with the Scottish Football Association and the University of Glasgow from 2008-10 during which 800 athletes in the 15-25 age group were screened, resulting in the identification of 42 young people with a family history of sudden death and one potentially serious case of heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy). This project has recently been extended for a further two years.

Whilst sudden cardiac death in children and young people is quite rare, and despite the ongoing Scottish Government pilot involving those involved in sport, there is a much lower level of public awareness regarding this disease than other forms of sudden death, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) about which there is a very high level of awareness following health information campaigns.

Dr Andrew Grace, Consultant Cardiologist, Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, said,

“Evidence has shown the likelihood of sudden cardiac death can be greatly reduced through the combined careful consideration of symptoms including loss of consciousness, chest pain, breathlessness, palpitations or seizures and the taking of a detailed family history. In addition to noting a family history of heart disease, doctors and patients should pay particular attention to a family history of sudden unexplained death, car accident or unexplained drowning which could indicate signs of a genetic pre-disposition to sudden cardiac death. By considering such wider factors we can identify the need for referral to a cardiologist, consideration for screening and ultimately save lives”.

Dr Neil Dewhurst, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), and a Consultant Cardiologist, said,

“Sudden cardiac death can have a devastating effect not just in terms of prematurely ending the life of a young person, but also upon their families and friends. In many cases these sudden and unexpected deaths are preventable and at risk individuals can be identified via effective screening fed by greater public awareness. It is essential that the public become more aware of the related symptoms and family indicators of disease in order that we can reduce the number of lives lost needlessly each year.

“The Scottish Government is to be applauded for piloting work in this area and extending this for another 2 years. However, it is essential that appropriate cardiac screening should become a core, ongoing, component of future public health policy and strategy, and that we seek ways to identify children under 15 who may be at equal risk to those targeted by this pilot. Successive governments have been hugely influential in raising public awareness about other forms of sudden death, including SIDS, and this has led to a reduction in associated death rates. There is now a need to similarly inform and educate the public about sudden cardiac death in adolescents and young adults.”


Contact: Graeme McAlister on 0131-247-3693 or 07733-263453


The RCPE Cardiology Symposium will be held at the RCPE, 9 Queen Street, Edinburgh from 9.00am – 4.30pm on Tuesday 23 November 2010.