Is cardiac arrest the same as a heart attack? Lisa Marie Presley cause of death explained - plus symptoms

Cardiac arrest is often mistakenly thought to be the same as a heart attack

Lisa Marie Presley, singer and the only child of Elvis Presley, had died at age 54. Los Angeles County paramedics were dispatched to a Calabasas home at 10.37am following a report of a woman in full cardiac arrest, according to Craig Little, a spokesperson for the county’s fire department.

Following the news of her death, this is everything you need to know about cardiac arrests - including if they are the same as a heart attack.

What is a cardiac arrest - is it the same as a heart attack?

Many believe that a cardiac arrest is just another word for a heart attack, however that is not actually the case - the two are separate, although many cardiac arrests in adults happen as a result of a heart attack.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) defines a cardiac arrest as when “a person’s heart stops pumping around their body and they stop breathing normally”. A heart attack on the other hand occurs when the blood supply to the heart muscle is cut off, usually caused by a clot in one of the coronary arteries.

A queue of ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital emergency department on November 24, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

A cardiac arrest can be triggered by a heart attack because “a person who is having a heart attack may develop a dangerous heart rhythm”.

The BHF explains that a cardiac arrest is an “electrical problem” whereas a heart attack is a “circulation problem”. In the event of a cardiac arrest, the person will be unconscious, while a person suffering from a heart attack will probably retain consciousness.

What are the symptoms?

A cardiac arrest is an emergency that usually happens without warning - if a person goes into cardiac arrest, they will suddenly collapse and:

  • Will be unconscious 
  • Will be unresponsive
  • Will not be breathing, or not breathing normally - this may mean that they’re making gasping noises

Without immediate treatment, a person in cardiac arrest will die, so acting quickly is of the essence.

What should I do if someone is having one?

If you see someone having a cardiac arrest, the BHF says that you should phone 999 immediately, begin CPR and use a defibrillator if there’s one nearby. You should follow the instructions from the 999 operator until the emergency services take over.

Starting CPR immediately is vital as it keeps blood and oxygen moving to the brain and around the body. The BHF offers the following steps to administering CPR:

  • Kneel next to the person and place the heel of one hand in the centre of their chest. Place your other hand on top of the first and interlock your fingers
  • With straight arms, use the heel of your hand to push the breastbone down firmly and smoothly, so that the chest is pressed down between 5-6cm, then release
  • Do this at a rate of 100 to 120 chest compressions per minute - that’s around two per second. The BHF tells people to push to the beat of the song Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees
  • Keep going until professional help arrives and takes over, or the person starts to show signs of regaining consciousness, such as coughing or opening their eyes, speaking or breathing normally 

The BHF adds that if you want to give rescue breaths, you should give two after 30 pumps of the chest. If you don’t feel confident giving rescue breaths then you should continue giving hands only CPR, which the BHF says is “still very effective at keeping the heart pumping”.

Volunteers conduct CPR training by St John Ambulance instructors during their course to administer Covid-19 vaccines at Manchester United Football Club on January 30, 2021 in Manchester, England (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

If you want to give rescue breaths, you should:

  • Tilt the person’s head back gently and lift their chin up with two fingers
  • Pinch their nose and seal your mouth over theirs and blow hard for about a second
  • Do this twice and then continue pumping the chest for 30 counts 

If you have access to a public defibrillator, you should turn it on and follow its instructions. The machine will decide whether a shock is needed and, if so, will tell you to press the shock button. An automatic defibrillator will shock the person without prompt - ensure that you aren’t touching the person whilst they’re being shocked.

You can familiarise yourself with the locations of defibrillators where you live by using the Defib Finder website. The site allows you to see where defibrillators are located, and can filter the search results based on whether the defibrillator is available 24/7 or just certain times, and whether members of the public have access to them.

What causes cardiac arrests?

A cardiac arrest is caused by a dangerous abnormal heart rhythm which occurs when the electrical system of the heart isn’t functioning as it should. Not all abnormal heart rhythms are life threatening, but some mean that the heart cannot effectively pump blood all around the body.

Some conditions can cause abnormal heart rhythms and in turn can trigger a cardiac arrest if they’re severe or left untreated, such as:

  • Cardiomyopathies (disease of the heart muscle) and inherited heart conditions which affect the electrical system of the heart, such as Brugada syndrome
  • Congenital heart disease, which is a heart condition or defect you get before you’re born
  • Heart valve disease, which is when one or more of your heart valves don’t work properly
  • Severe or untreated myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle
An emergency defibrillator on a wall (Photo: Chris Radburn/PA)

Other causes of cardiac arrest can also include:

  • A heart attack, often caused by coronary heart disease
  • A severe haemorrhage (losing a large amount of blood)
  • Hypoxia (a severe drop in oxygen levels)
  • Electrocution 
  • A drug overdose 

Depending on the person, your GP may suggest the following lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of having a cardiac arrest:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Quitting smoking
  • Cutting down on alcohol 
  • Taking medications and following treatment from your doctor
  • Being physically active 

Are there any long term effects?

A lack of oxygen to the brain caused by a cardiac arrest can sometime lead to long term effects, such as:

  • Personality changes
  • Problems with memory
  • Feeling tired
  • Dizziness or balance issues
  • Aphasia/dysphasia (problems with speech and language)
  • Myoclonus (involuntary movements)
  • Permanent brain injury 

The BHF says: “It’s normal to have no memory of a cardiac arrest and you may feel low, angry, confused or a combination of lots of different emotions due to the shock of the experience. It can also be difficult for your family members who may have seen it happening. Speak to your doctor if you’re concerned about your mental health as they may be able to refer you to counselling.”