Editorial: Some heartfelt advice

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The June 13 death of "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert was notable not only because of his fame: The 58-year-old's heart attack was startling and sudden. One minute he was recording voice-overs. The next he collapsed.

Perhaps more than a few middle-aged men are wondering whether this could happen to them. Those taking cholesterol-lowering medicines or who've been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, as was Russert, may be especially worried. The newsman had performed well on a recent stress test. Didn't his doctor know an attack was imminent?

It's true that we live in an era of amazing cardiac knowledge. Thanks to better technology and drugs, doctors report a decreased need for bypasses and angioplasties. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the fatality rate from heart disease has fallen from 50 percent from just two decades ago.

Despite this, coronary disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. And it's just not possible to predict if or when a cardiac event will strike.

"Our treatments have made huge strides in the past 40 years," concurs Dr. Donald McElroy, a prominent Peoria cardiologist, "but there are still unfortunate instances where people can have a sudden heart attack." Indeed, Russert died quickly after plaque from a clogged artery ruptured and disrupted blood flow to his heart. But in many such cases, McElroy says, patients will experience symptoms and have time to get to a hospital.

The key, then, is to not only realize your risk of coronary trouble but recognize an attack.

Starting as young as 20, Dr. McElroy says adults should have the basics checked: blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar. Some people are predisposed to high cholesterol, but that's no excuse. Quitting smoking, exercising and eating a diet low in saturated fat remain important. Women must pay attention, too. While people tend to think of heart attacks as affecting mostly men, heart disease in fact kills more women. The risk dramatically rises after menopause.

Furthermore, McElroy says that many people killed by heart attacks reacted too late, dismissing the attack as heartburn or indigestion. Besides angina, symptoms may include upper body discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea and lightheadedness. Women are more likely to have symptoms other than chest pain.

Heart attacks are "an equal opportunity" tragedy, McElroy says.

We're saddened by the sudden passing of the career newsman. The best way to honor him is by learning more about your own heart health.