Last week Félicité Tomlinson, sister of One Direction's Louis Tomlinson, tragically died at the age of 18 as a result of a suspected heart attack. Not only is the news incredibly sad, following the death of the siblings' mother, Johannah Deakin, to leukaemia two years ago, but Félicité's death has also come as a big shock.
While a post-mortem is yet to be carried out, Félicité's suspected cause of death - a heart attack - is extremely rare in someone so young. In order to find out how unusual this kind of thing really is, and what might cause a teenager to die from a heart attack, we spoke to Professor Simon Redwood, a Consultant Cardiologist at London Bridge Hospital (part of HCA Healthcare UK).
As we assumed, Professor Redwood confirms that "heart attacks are extremely rare in young people." But while they're the leading cause of death in men aged between 45 and 54 years old, the cardiologist explains that "heart attacks are being increasingly recognised in young women."
There's a key difference, however, in terminology. While most people assume 'heart attack' and 'cardiac arrest' are one and the same thing, the doctor explains that there is a distinguishable difference between the two.
A heart attack occurs "when one or more of the coronary arteries - the arteries which supply the heart muscle with blood - become blocked, causing a part of the heart to be starved of blood and oxygen, ultimately leading to that part of the muscle dying (unless treated promptly)."
A cardiac arrest is slightly different. "The latter is when the heart goes into an abnormal rhythm which is unable to pump blood around the body," notes Professor Redwood.
The likely causes of a heart attack in very young people differ from the potential causes of a cardiac arrest, or sudden cardiac death as it's also called.
Causes of heart attacks in young people may include:
- Clotting abnormalities, resulting in a blood clot forming in one of the coronary arteries.
- A split in the wall of the artery resulting in it blocking. This is known as 'spontaneous coronary dissection' and, although the overall incidence is very low, it can occur in pregnant women or during intense exercise.
- Drugs, especially cocaine. This can cause intense spasm of a coronary artery, a fast heart rhythm (known as tachycardia) and increased clotting of the blood.
- An inherited form of very high blood cholesterol, known as Familial Hypercholesterolaemia. This can cause a build-up of cholesterol in the arteries, increasing the risk of a sudden blockage.
Causes of sudden cardiac death in young people may include:
- Inherited specific diseases of the heart muscle, known as Cardiomyopathy. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, for example, can be associated with causing abnormal heart rhythm, but it can often go undiagnosed due to minimal symptoms.
- A range of specific abnormalities of the electrical system of the heart causing abnormal heart rhythms, which can also be inherited.
We don't know yet what caused Félicité Tomlinson's death - whether it was a heart attack, a cardiac arrest, or something entirely different - but a post mortem will hopefully soon bring much-needed answers for her grieving family.
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