Teen Contestant on The Voice Has Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy—Sudden Death Disease

You may know that sudden infant death (SIDs) can cause the unexplained death of a child under one-year-old. There are, however, heart conditions that can cause sudden death in people past infancy and childhood. One condition is sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS)—also known as Brugada syndrome. Another is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). But, what is this condition with the ominous name of sudden death disease, exactly?

Medline Plus says that in SADS, the heartbeat becomes erratic causing cardiac arrest. In HCM, the muscles of the heart become unusually thickened, making it hard to pump blood to the body the American Heart Association (AHA) tells us.

Haynes' Heart Condition

A 19-year-old with a serious heart condition earned a spot on The Voice after originally just wanting to attend a taping of the show. Berritt Haynes ended up on the show's Blind Auditions episode after his mom submitted a tape to producers of her son singing.

Haynes, who has a type of sudden death disease condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, landed on Team Blake after singing "Mercy" by Shawn Mendes. Haynes was diagnosed with the disease when he was eight; at 14, he had surgery to get an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) placed in the chest to detect and stop abnormal heartbeats. "I'm truly grateful to be alive," Haynes told Carson Daly during the episode.

Haynes later said on Instagram that he "can't wait to begin this journey" on the show.

Voice Contestant Has Sudden Death Disease: What Is That? , Berritt-Haynes
NBC / Getty Images

What Is Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy?

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy—sudden death disease—is a condition that's usually caused by abnormal genes in the heart muscle, according to the AHA. Those genes cause the walls of the heart chamber to contract harder and become thicker than normal.

Over time, the thickened walls become stiff, reducing the amount of blood that flows in and is pumped out of the body with each heartbeat.

There are two forms of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: obstructive, which happens when the wall between the two bottom chambers of the heart thickens, and non-obstructive, meaning the heart's main pumping chamber becomes stiff, limiting how much blood the ventricle can take in and out.

"The big thing with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is that it can cause sudden death," Hoang Nguyen, MD, interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells Health. "You may see stories of young athletes who collapse on the court or field and die—some of them have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy." Dr. Nguyen says that not everyone who has the condition will die suddenly. But, he adds, "the risk is there."

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a chronic disease that can get worse over time, creating a poorer quality of life, the AHA says. People with the condition usually need to limit their activity and may develop other health complications over time like atrial fibrillation, blood clots, stroke, and heart failure. It can also lead to sudden cardiac arrest, although the AHA says this is rare. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in young people and athletes over 35.

"There is a small subset of patients who develop sudden death or a cardiac arrest from abnormal heart rhythms, and this is most common in younger people and athletes," Beth Foreman, DO, assistant professor, of Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Cardiology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Health. "It is estimated that about 0.5% to 1% of patients with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy have a sudden death event per year."

Symptoms

Some people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy don't have any symptoms, according to the AHA, while others may develop them over time. Those can include:

  • Chest pain, especially with physical exertion
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical exertion
  • Fatigue
  • Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms)
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, abdomen, and veins in the neck

Diagnosis

"It's hard to diagnose clinically," Dr. Nguyen says. In other words, if you don't have symptoms and your doctor isn't looking for it, sudden death disease can be hard to pick up. However, sometimes it can be detected during a routine physical, he says.

The condition is usually diagnosed after a physical exam, family history, and diagnostic tests, including an electrocardiogram (ECG), cardiac MRI, stress test, Holter and event monitors, and genetic testing, the AHA says.

Treatment for Sudden Death Disease

No one specific treatment for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy exists, but patients may undergo a range of treatments to manage their disease. That can include medications called beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and diuretics to help with symptoms and to improve the heart's ability to function.

Open heart surgery, alcohol septal ablation—where a form of alcohol is injected into the heart to help shrink some of the heart muscle—surgically implanted devices like a pacemaker, and, in severe cases, a heart transplant, may be needed.

Some people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy don't need any of that, though. "We have some patients that really don't need intervention—they're just regularly monitored," Dr. Nguyen says. "It's not a simple pat on the back and saying 'you're fine.' They require follow-ups with a specialist."

"Patients should make sure to stay hydrated when they are outdoors in warmer weather or when exercising," Dr. Foreman says. "They should also avoid contact sports and strenuous exercise."

Overall, Dr. Nguyen stresses that it's possible to live a "very normal and healthy life" with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

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  1. Medline Plus. Brugada syndrome.

  2. American Heart Association (AHA). Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).

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