What causes sudden death in patients with chronic heart failure and a reduced ejection fraction?

Milton Packer
European Heart Journal 2019 August 7
Sudden death characterizes the mode of demise in 30-50% of patients with chronic heart failure and a reduced ejection fraction. Occasionally, these events have an identifiable pathophysiological trigger, e.g. myocardial infarction, catecholamine surges, or electrolyte imbalances, but in most circumstances, there is no acute precipitating mechanism. Instead, adverse left ventricular remodelling and fibrosis creates an exceptionally fragile and highly vulnerable substrate, which can be characterized using the model developed in theoretical physics of 'self-organizing criticality'. This framework has been applied to describe the genesis of avalanches, nodes of traffic congestion unrelated to an accident, the abrupt system-wide failure of electrical grids, and the initiation of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Self-organizing criticality within the ventricular myocardium relies on complex adaptations to progressive stress and stretch, which evolve inevitably to an abrupt end (termed 'cascading failure'), even though the rate of deterioration of the underlying disease process has not changed. The result is acute circulatory collapse (i.e. sudden death) in the absence of an identifiable triggering event. Cascading failure in a severely remodelled or fibrotic heart can become manifest electrically as a first-time ventricular tachyarrhythmia that is responsive to the shock delivered by an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). Alternatively, it may present as an acute mechanical failure, which is manifest as (i) asystole, bradyarrhythmia, or electromechanical dissociation; or (ii) incessant ventricular fibrillation that persists despite repetitive ICD discharges; in both instances, the sudden deaths cannot be prevented by an ICD. This conceptual framework explains why anti-remodelling and antifibrotic interventions (i.e. neurohormonal antagonists and cardiac resynchronization) reduce the risk of sudden death in patients with heart failure in the absence of an ICD and provide incremental benefits in those with an ICD. The adoption of anti-remodelling and antifibrotic treatments may explain why the incidence of sudden death in clinical trials of heart failure has declined dramatically over the past 10-15 years, independent of the use of ICDs.


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