In recent weeks, there have been two high-profile sudden adult deaths in the Cork area.
Shane Murphy, from Clondrohid, Co Cork, was taking part in a schools’ match when he collapsed on the pitch and later died in early December.
Just days earlier, Deirdre Lynch, a 21-year-old arts student and part-time model, collapsed in front of diners while working at Eco’s Restaurant in Douglas, Cork City. She was pronounced dead shortly afterwards.
Coroners’ hearings into both deaths are yet to be held.
About 40 to 50 people under the age of 35 die each year from sudden cardiac death in Ireland.
In approximately 75% of cases, an autopsy will demonstrate the cause of death. The most common abnormal findings are a narrowing of the blood vessels supplying the heart muscle and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — an inherited thickening of the heart muscle which can lead to fatal heart rhythm disturbances.
In the remaining 25% of cases, the autopsy is normal and those cases are called Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS) or sudden unexplained death.
In general, three quarters of people who die from sudden cardiac death are male and only 10% of victims die during exertion.
According to Monica Martin of SADS Ireland, the most common causes of sudden cardiac death are inherited syndromes.
“It is important to remember that most of these deaths are due to inherited heart conditions, yet there is very little awareness of these conditions. One condition, cardiomyopathy, affects one in 500 people, that is more prevalent than cystic fibrosis”.
Long QT, another inherited condition, affects one in 2,500 people. Long QT is a disturbance of the heart’s electrical system which causes heart rhythm conditions.
A person with Long QT is prone to fainting spells, dizziness, and palpitations.
“Since my son Conor’s sudden death in 2005, a second cousin of mine lost his 23-year-old son. We now believe that we carry the gene that causes Long QT Syndrome in our family and are awaiting the results of genetic testing to establish if this is the case,” she said.
“Unfortunately due to a lack of resources, families have to wait many months for results as these tests are sent to the UK.”
“There’s no funding in Ireland for such screening. Any work that is done by Dr Galvin, who is the national expert, is funded by charitable donations”.
A Long QT support group exists in Ireland and further information can be obtained from the Irish Heart Foundation.
Leading cardiologist, Gerry Fahy said in recent weeks, he does not believe all athletes should undergo cardiac screening to find if they are at risk of sudden cardiac death.
Instead, he believes, it is more effective for all immediate relatives, siblings, parents, and children, of a person who dies suddenly to be screened.
People should also see a doctor if they have a history of blacking out or palpitation.
If heart problems are identified, treatment can be given to reduce risk of sudden death, he said.
A sudden cardiac death taskforce was established in 2004 by then health minister Mary Harney, following public concern about the death of several high-profile young sports stars including Cormac McAnallen.
However, the task force claimed that mass population screening programmes could lead to large numbers of normal young people being needlessly excluded from participating in sport and physical activity.
It is estimated survival from sudden cardiac death is less than 1% without any emergency treatment such as the use of a defibrillator. Survival rates increase to 50% if a defibrillator can be accessed within five minutes of a cardiac arrest.