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Young And Fit People Can Still Die Of Cardiac Arrest. Here's Why

Young individuals who appear slim and toned can have cardiac risk factors not immediately apparent to the untrained eye.

Cover image via Instagram @godfreygao Free Malaysia Today

The sudden death of model and actor Godfrey Gao while he was shooting for a sports variety show has sparked a discussion among many about death due to overworking and stress

Medical experts have determined that the Taiwanese-Canadian actor succumbed to cardiac arrest while doing a running challenge in the popular Chinese show called 'Chase Me' - known for pushing contestants to their physical limits.

They suspected his often stressful lifestyle and lack of adequate sleep contributed to his death. The actor had reportedly been working for 17 hours from when the shoot began on Tuesday at 8:30am until he collapsed at around 2am the next day, 27 November.

Gao's passing came as a shock, as the 35-year-old had seemingly good health and a well-built figure.

However, as explained by multiple cardiologists in Singapore, a person's health cannot be determined purely by how slim or chubby they are

"Good muscle tone is mainly a cosmetic quality and probably does not reflect (a person's) health status," said a cardiologist from Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Dr Kelvin Wong, in an interview with CNA to determine how someone looking as fit and healthy as Gao could have died by cardiac arrest.

He added that being slim is "no guarantee of good health" either.

Another cardiologist, Dr Kenneth Ng, agreed that "looks can be deceiving".

"You cannot really tell whether a person is healthy or fit by appearance," said Ng, who works at Novena Heart Centre in Singapore.

Blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol levels are better determinants of how healthy a person is, he clarified.

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via Ace Amino

To set the record straight, there is a difference between 'cardiac arrests' and 'heart attacks'

A cardiac arrest is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes it to beat irregularly and it can occur at any age.

According to a medical awareness website, First Aid for Free, when the heart beats irregularly, there would be an inadequate supply of blood to vital organs such as the brain, which results in loss of consciousness. Death will follow unless cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillation is received.

Meanwhile, a heart attack (known medically as an acute myocardial infarction) occurs when a major heart artery is suddenly blocked by a blood clot and heart muscle is damaged due to a lack of oxygen.

Theoretically anyone can suffer from a heart attack, but it typically occurs in older adults because it takes years to develop a fatty plaque that blocks up the heart arteries.

Therefore, young individuals who appear slim and toned can have cardiac risk factors not immediately apparent to the untrained eye

The usual risk factors of cardiac disease include:
- High blood pressure,
- High cholesterol,
- Diabetus mellitus,
- Genetics, and
- Smoking.

However, it is possible to have other risk factors that usually go unnoticed.

"There are some rare, inherited conditions which cause individuals to develop abnormal heart muscles or electrical conduction abnormalities in the heart," said Dr Lin Weiqin, a consultant cardiologist at Singapore's National University Heart Centre.

He cited hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, dilated cardiomyopathy, and long QT syndrome as examples.

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via Medical News Today

"Individuals with these conditions are predisposed to unstable and dangerous heart rhythms during periods of extreme physical exertion, which can lead to cardiac arrest," he added.

Unfortunately, as explained by Dr Ng, these heart diseases may not be obvious from physical appearance, and can only be diagnosed with in-depth tests in the hospital.

While Gao had no known pre-existing cardiovascular issues, it cannot be denied that his body was in a stressed state, having worked 17 hours while competing in the obstacle course on set

In such demanding situations, stress hormones produced can increase the risk of abnormal heart rhythms.

According to Dr Wong, being constantly stressed may also alter the way our blood clots in the arteries, and thus increase the risk of heart attacks.

"Extreme stress can also rarely be involved in a unique kind of heart attack, resulting in a weakened heart known as Takotsubo Syndrome (stress-induced cardiomyopathy)," he said.

He added that emotional distress, such as having depression or other mood disorders, was another risk factor for heart disease.

Image for illustration purposes.

Image via Business Insider

Adding on to the factors that led to his untimely demise, Gao was also said to be nursing a flu while filming the physically-draining reality show

While catching the flu may not seem like a big concern or whether it could have played a part in Gao's death, Dr Wong explained that it is possible for the virus to cause inflammation of the heart, and depending on the severity, may also lead to a weakened heart and cardiac arrest.

Besides Gao, another young man recently collapsed due to overworking:

We may have to reconsider our work-life balance:

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