Doctors explains this serious heart condition.

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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 on September 28 after his mom submitted a tape to producers of her son singing.

Haynes, who has a condition called sudden death disease—aka, 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.

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

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

But what is sudden death disease, exactly, and why does it have such an ominous name? Here's what you need to know.

What is sudden death disease?

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a condition that's usually caused by abnormal genes in the heart muscle, according to the American Heart Association (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, 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."

What are the symptoms of sudden death disease?

Some people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy don't have any symptoms, according 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

How is sudden death disease diagnosed?

"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.

How is sudden death disease treated?

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 followups 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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