The study, believed to be first showing that sudden cardiac death runs in families, could help identify people at high risk for the condition.
"Physicians generally ask patients whether they have a family history of heart attacks," noted French cardiologist Dr. Xavier Jouven, lead author of the study published Tuesday in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association. "It would now be useful to ask patients about a possible parental history of sudden death."
More than 481,000 heart attacks occur each year. Roughly half of those -- 250,000 -- are sudden deaths, which occur within an hour of the onset of symptoms. The heart abruptly stops working in a person who may or may not have been diagnosed with previous heart disease.
A typical heart attack, by contrast, usually occurs when an artery serving the heart muscle is blocked. The heart continues to beat and victims usually survive even if care is delayed.
Researchers followed 7,079 middle-aged men who worked for the city of Paris. The men were studied for an average of 23 years. Of the 118 men who died of sudden cardiac death, 22, or 18.6 percent, had a parent who had died the same way.
When the researchers figured in other risk factors like age, blood pressure and tobacco use, the risk of sudden death among men whose mother or father had experienced sudden death was almost double that of men whose fathers did not suffer sudden death. Men with two parents who suffered sudden death had a risk nine times higher than for those whose parents did not.
"I would consider this a significant contribution to the literature on our understanding of sudden cardiac death," said Dr. Richard L. Page, associate professor of internal medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, who was not involved in the study.
"But the next step is to figure out what the abnormality is so we can better establish which patients are at greatest risk."
Written By Melissa Williams