About one in every nine men and one in every 30 women will experience sudden cardiac death, according to research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“These numbers should raise a red flag,” Donald Lloyd-Jones, M.D., senior study author and chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said in a press release.

“We often screen for conditions that are less common and much less deadly than sudden cardiac death. For instance, the lifetime risk for colon cancer is about one in 21, and for this reason everyone over the age of 50 is told to have a colonoscopy. But by comparison, the lifetime risk of sudden cardiac death for men is one in nine, and yet we’re not really screening for it.”

Sudden cardiac death claims up to 450,000 American lives each year and most commonly occurs in people with no prior symptoms of cardiovascular disease.

In the first study to reveal lifetime risk estimates for sudden cardiac death, researchers examined long-term data on more than 5,200 men and women ages 28 to 62 who were free of cardiovascular disease when they enrolled in the decades-long Framingham Heart Study.

Focusing on four major risk factors — blood pressure, total cholesterol, smoking and diabetes — researchers calculated cumulative lifetime risk estimates for sudden cardiac death and estimates according to risk factor burden. They found:

  • Sudden cardiac death occurred in 375 people during follow-up.
  • Men at age 45 had a 10.9 percent lifetime risk of sudden cardiac death and women at age 45 had a 2.8 percent lifetime risk.
  • Men with two or more major risk factors at all ages had at least 12 percent higher lifetime risks for sudden cardiac death.
  • High blood pressure or a combination of other cardiovascular risk factors was associated with higher lifetime risk of sudden cardiac death.
  • High blood pressure levels helped identify lifetime risk of sudden cardiac death more accurately in men and women than any other risk factor.

Previous methods for predicting sudden cardiac risk in a person’s lifetime have been partly successful, missing many people who ultimately succumb to it, researchers said.

“Sudden cardiac death has been very hard to study because most patients had no history of heart problems and were not being monitored at the time of their death,” Lloyd-Jones said. “The majority of all cases occur before age 70; this is obviously sudden and devastating for families, with a burden that can be quite severe.”