Heart Health

Another Case of Sudden Cardiac Death

June 26, 2009

Another Case of Sudden Cardiac Death

Michael Jackson’s passing raises many questions and we don’t yet have answers

The passing of the King of Pop has been all the talk around the office today. Already I’ve had a couple people ask me to speculate whether Michael Jackson’s unusual lifestyle may have led to his early demise. Almost everyone is familiar with Mr. Jackson’s numerous plastic surgery adventures, his reclusive life, and his reported strange social habits. Given his megastar status and his history of unusual health problems I doubt we’ll ever get the full story of his physical status prior to his death. In the end the best we can do is speculate.

The cause of death, as reported in the news, was cardiac in nature. According to his brother Jermaine: “It is believed he suffered cardiac arrest in his home. However, the cause of his death is unknown until results of the autopsy are known.” Toxicology reports are pending and the autopsy is planned for today. The county coroner’s office promised full disclosure of their findings.

If I had to guess I would say that we will learn of no foul play, illegal substance misadventures, or complications of unusual medical procedures or therapies gone awry. I think we’ll find that Mr. Jackson died of cardiac arrest probably associated with undiagnosed underlying coronary disease. What’s common is common, and when dealing with the sudden death of a 50-year-old male in this country (moon-walking megastar or not) the best bet is cardiac disease.

Cardiac arrest can happen to anyone, even those without any previous manifestation of cardiac disease

We already know that emergency medical services respond to approximately 300,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests per year; more than 92% of cardiac arrest victims don’t survive to hospital discharge. In about half the cases there is no previous manifestation of cardiac disease.

It’s tragic when anyone dies before their time and the loss of Michael Jackson serves as a reminder that cardiac disease is an equal opportunity curse that doesn’t discriminate based on fame—one Fox News commentator stated: “Such a larger than life figure is, in the end, just a human body.” We’ll never know if Mr. Jackson could have lived longer with different health choices or medical screening. We do know that such measures are our best bet to avoid a similar fate.

  1. Katrina

    In the midst of media buzz over sensational causes for Michael Jackson's death, it's good to get a calmer, scientific voice offer that the sudden death of a 50-year-old male is commonly due to cardiac disease in our country. Some good can come from this tragedy: If this man who danced across the world stage can influence people to think about making healthier lifestyle changes...or set an appointment with their doctor for a screening today... it could extend the lives of thousands.

  2. Jen

    First of all - thanks for the post. I like to hear what the experts have to say, especially when there is so much speculation out there. Secondly - I've heard that artists have to undergo pretty in-depth physicals before concert promoters will allow them to announce their tour. Reportedly Michael Jackson had a physical as recently as six months ago - to prepare for his upcoming tour. Is it possible that even the best of physicals can miss an underlying heart condition? Also, I understand that in many cases, there may not be any symptoms of an underlying condition, thus no diagnosis. But is it possible for someone to suffer a cardiac arrest without any underlying conditions at all? Thanks!

  3. Dr. Van De Graaff

    Jen, Thanks for your comments. We're a week out from Michael Jackson's death and we really don't know any more information. You question is valid: Is there a test that could have picked up an impending heart attack? Unfortunately that test doesn't really exist yet. We have the ability to quantify degree of coronary narrowing and we can provide a rough likelihood of future problems, but we still can't adequately predict when a stable coronary blockage could become unstable. I have to imagine that Michael went though a thorough exam process and must have passed. It's a little strange that he had a cardiologist in his house at the time of his death and that makes me think there's still more we don't know. We'll just have to wait and see.

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