Coping with a sudden and unexpected loss

Dealing with the death of a loved one is one of the hardest things any of us will have to face.

If someone close to you dies unexpectedly, it’s natural to ask why and how it could have happened, particularly if they were young or seemed perfectly healthy.


Heart conditions like coronary heart disease, cardiomyopathy, congenital heart disease, and inherited heart rhythm disturbances can lead to cardiac arrest and sudden death.

Not everyone with these conditions will die suddenly – but each person who does is one too many.

Support for you

If you’ve lost somebody to heart disease, we're here to help

  • call our Heart Helpline - our team are here to help you find the support you need
  • order our small creature pack for bereaved children
  • if a coroner has reported that someone in your family has died of sudden cardiac death, call our genetic information service for support and advice on what to do next.

If you or a loved one have recently been diagnosed with a heart condition and are worried about what the future holds, we can help:

Understanding how people die suddenly from heart disease

When someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly, you might hear it called a cardiac arrest, a heart attack, sudden cardiac death, or SADS (sudden arrhythmic death syndrome).

Cardiac arrest

A cardiac arrest happens when the heart suddenly stops pumping blood around the body. 

Cardiac arrests happen when the electrical currents that tell the heart when to beat become unstable, causing the heart to stop pumping blood around the body and brain. 

Someone who is having a cardiac arrest will suddenly lose consciousness and will stop breathing or stop breathing normally. Without CPR, that person will die.

Heart attack

Although a heart attack can lead to a cardiac arrest, they are not the same thing. A heart attack is a sudden interruption of the blood supply to part of the heart muscle. It is likely to cause chest pain and permanent damage to the heart. Unlike a cardiac arrest, during a heart attack the heart is still pumping blood around the body. 

However a heart attack can lead to a cardiac arrest, because the loss of blood supply to a part of the heart muscle can make the electrical currents in the heart unstable. About one in three people who have a heart attack die in hospital from a cardiac arrest.

Find out more about coronary heart disease and how it causes heart attacks

Sudden cardiac death and SADS (sudden arrhythmic death syndrome)

Sudden cardiac death – or SCD for short – is a way of describing a cardiac arrest that is thought to be caused by a heart condition

In about 1 in every 20 cases of sudden cardiac death, no definite cause of death can be found even after the person’s heart has been examined by experts.  This is often called Sudden arrhythmic death syndrome. 

Find out more about SADS

Help us fund more research to save more lives

Thanks to research we've funded more people are surviving heart disease than ever before.

We’ve been pioneering the fight against heart disease for over 50 years, funding life saving research into cures and treatments. But there’s still more to do. One in four people in the UK are still dying from heart and circulatory disease.

We urgently need to fund more research to find new ways to prevent and treat heart disease, and ultimately, save more lives.

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