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Heart Health, With Apologies to George Carlin

I was wondering why political commentator Tim Russert's death from a heart attack spurred so much media chatter about cardiovascular health while comedian George Carlin's heart-failure death soon after did not. Maybe everybody already had said everything they had to say on the subject, I figured.

Then I came across this news item, which at first made me roll my eyes: a cardiologist at the University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill School of Medicine has come up with a list of "Seven Dirty Words About Heart Disease," a play, of course, on Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV." (Sorry I'm not providing a link here, but you can't say those seven words in The Checkup, either.)

Once I stopped rolling my eyes and actually read the list, though, it struck me as a pretty handy roundup of the key elements affecting heart health.

Cam Patterson, chief of the division of cardiology at UNC and concocter of the list, leapt shamelessly on the opportunity to use the sad fact of Carlin's death to draw attention to heart disease, the leading cause of death for men and women alike. ""You get a little bit of liberty to be irreverent when you've got somebody who's been irreverent all his life," Patterson told me.

"Heart disease is a tough disease to adequately publicize," Patterson explained. "It has a long asymptomatic period, so people harbor it for a long time" before its threat is recognized. Plus, he says, people tend to think that those with heart disease have brought it on themselves, so there's not always compassion for those who suffer from it.

That attitude may be behind the disparity in the way Russert's and Carlin's deaths were viewed, Patterson reasons. "Carlin's heart disease was public knowledge," he says. "I also wonder whether his history of drug and alcohol use made people think it was his fault."

Oddly, though women are more likely than men to die of heart disease, neither Dr. Patterson nor I was able to think of a well-known woman who's dealing publicly with it or has died from it. (I Googled after talking with Patterson and found one: tiny, 40-year-old singer Toni Braxton.)

Here is Patterson's list of things you should know about heart disease:

- Diet: Fat, sugar and foods high in cholesterol are known to contribute to heart disease; diabetes (also diet related) also damages the heart and blood vessels.
- Genetics: African Americans, Hispanics, and native Americans all have higher rates of high blood pressure and heart disease.
- Stress: Working too much, dramatic personal lives, worrying, depression; also feeding stress with too much alcohol and other drugs (Carlin reportedly went through drug and alcohol rehab in 2004).
- Smoking: Smoking constricts blood vessels and strains the heart and lungs.
- Inactivity: The heart is a muscle that needs to be exercised; even moderate activity is helpful, and losing 10 pounds can reduce your cardiac risk.
- High blood pressure: Hypertension leads to undue stress on a variety of organs, including the heart; combined with other risk factors it increases the chance of a heart attack many times.
- Denial: Saying "It won't happen to me," without changing your lifestyle, guarantees you won't see a decrease in your risk.

As Patterson points out, "Of the seven things on the list, six are things you can correct. You can't change your genes, but everything else, you have control over."

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 27, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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Comments

Excuse me - I'm just a TV-watcher but from the "looks" of Russert he sure didn't look like a poster child for good health!

His mental and verbal gymnastics may have been admirable, but those double-chins told a story of someone who was doing more fork than bicep curls!

I think it was the unexpected nature of Russert's death and the fact that he was right in the middle of things that generated so much publicity. George Carlin was older and wasn't quite so evident in the daily media scene.

Heart disease has some preventable/manageable factors - and both these public figures probably could have done a better job with them.

Posted by: RoseG | June 27, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Good article today.

Men are less likely to go to a doctor for regular check-ups or to monitor a chronic problem, so a problem can be well on its way to being irreversible before they see a physician.

As for losing weight, my grandmother used to say about overweight or obese people: They are digging their grave with a knife and fork.

Posted by: TGIF | June 27, 2008 2:55 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Patterson that 6/7 things, you can control. Then there are those who DO watch those 6/7 things and that 1 thing you can't change - genetics - is the one that ultimately rules your body.

I've watched my cholesterol levels climb steadily and I can't stop it from climbing. My diet is great, I exercise, my BMI is normal... it's genetics that won't cooperate! My husband has the same diet (without my committment to exercise) and his cholesterol is 100pts lower than mine. If heart disease weren't so prominent in my family, I would probably go through life blissful that I am doing everything I can to keep myself healthy. No wonder they call it the silent killer!

Posted by: cmille | June 30, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Patterson that 6/7 things, you can control. Then there are those who DO watch those 6/7 things and that 1 thing you can't change - genetics - is the one that ultimately rules your body.

I've watched my cholesterol levels climb steadily and I can't stop it from climbing. My diet is great, I exercise, my BMI is normal... it's genetics that won't cooperate! My husband has the same diet (without my committment to exercise) and his cholesterol is 100pts lower than mine. If heart disease weren't so prominent in my family, I would probably go through life blissful that I am doing everything I can to keep myself healthy. No wonder they call it the silent killer!

Posted by: cmille | June 30, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

First let me say that we are truly sorry for Tim Russert and his family. It is awful to lose someone suddenly to Sudden Cardiac Arrest. It is good that Sudden Cardiac Arrest is being discussed.
We are also very sorry that the subject of Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) in children and youth is never brought up. We are the parents of Andrew Helgeson who was the epitome of health and died from Sudden Cardiac Arrest at only 18 years old a few days before graduating high school. Andrew was young, healthy and had his entire life before him. He died of a cardiac arrhythmia and we still do not know what caused it. Andrew was a wonderful and intelligent young man that had a full academic scholarship to college. He excelled in everything he did. He had his entire life planned and it was tragically taken from him. Andrew was the star starting lacrosse goalie. He never, ever drank, smoked or did drugs. Truly I am sick of hearing about all of the actors that abuse drugs and alcohol and the media watches them every second and write pages and pages and yet very little is ever written or spoken about the thousands of children in the US alone that die annually like our son from Sudden Cardiac Arrest. We have set up the R. Andrew Helgeson Memorial Foundation to help bring awareness of Sudden Cardiac Awareness in children and youth. Also we have tried to bring the awareness of the importance of AEDs(Automatic External Defibrillators) which is the only thing that can help to save a victim of Sudden Cardiac Arrest. Governor Ehrlich signed a law that is unofficially called Andrew's Law in 2006 that mandates that all MD public high schools must have AEDs and at all school sponsored athletic events. We have tried for two years to have them introduce a bill to include AEDs in all shcools in MD yet the subject of lack of money comes up. We have promoted heart screenings for all children. They do it in Italy and in Japan. Arent our children just as important? It is sad how hard we have tried and yet when someone like Daniel Smith and Anna Nicole Smith and Heath Ledger or George Carlin dies the airways are so preoccupied with their deaths and yet there is no room or time for helping to bring awareness of Sudden Cardiac Arrest in children and youth. Every move that Amy Whinehouse takes if followed.
We are sent daily notices and it is pathetic how many children die of SCA. There is no mandatory registry and our son is not in any registry. So many deaths are incorrectly labeled car accident, drownig. athma, seizure or natural when it is from SCA in children.
First responders do not know what to do and they see a teenager and a lot of times suspect drugs which is horrible. Do not rely on them getting there immediately. The first 10 minutes are crucial and the earliest use of the AED has the best results that the victim lives and does not have brain damage.
So many reporters stand there and say, "Young people do not die like this at an early age and it must be drugs." No one will help to bring the awarenss of Sudden Cardiac Arrest in youth and be a spokesperson for our wonderful children that now have no voices and it is awful. Our Andrew was a kind and caring and good person and this is not right. Our healthy children should not be dying like this and articles written that a healthy child has died and the parents are yet again mystified make us sad. If the public demanded that AEDS be placed in all facilities and that our children be screened and money be made available for research then our children would stop dying.
Reporters that we have spoken to write very little and even when we explain that SCA is an electrical problem of the heart they will continue to write our son died of a heart attack. That is wrong. Even reporters that we have spoken to could and should write about the children but yet in all of the write ups of Tim Roussert nothing was mentioned.
We had a revision to the Good Samaritan Law in MD to make it more user friendly that was signed by Gov O'Malley in May 2008 that gives immunity to the operator of the AED giving aid to the victim of SCA. They will not have to be afraid to help and fear they will be sued. Yet there was hardly anything written about it.
When are people going to understand what a tragic loss it is to a family to lose any member of their family to SCA and especially tragic and devastating to lose a caring, healthy and wonderful child?
We miss our SUN Andrew with every breath and every heart beat. It is ridiculous when the mention of money comes up in cardiac testing or placing AEDs. AEDS can cost just around $1200. We would have paid everything we had to have our son tested and save his life. Parents should have the knowledge and choice. As far as the price of an AED it is pocket change when you could save a life especially your loved one and child. I was appallled in an earlier article titled "Does your family defibrillate?" The use of CPR is not going to correct the erratic ventricular fibrillations that cause deadly cardiac arrhythmias that kill. Do not rely on the EMTs getting to a victim of SCA in time and knowing what to do. Too bad the coworkers did not use the AED right away on Tim Russert.
It is the worse thing in the world to watch your child die before your eyes and not be able to do anything. It is a horrible to talk to the medical examiner about your child's tissues and to bury your lovely and precious child. It is a nightmare that never ends.
I truly hope the reporters that write this blog will again mention all the children that die of SCA. Who ever reads my note please be kind enough to tell at least 10 people about SCA in children and ask them to tell another 10 people.
Thank you for remembering our Andrew and you may go to http://silverchips.mbhs.edu/inside.php?sid=5424 and read more about our wonderful son Andrew. I truly hope that someone reads this and cares enough to help us save other families from having their children die like our son and have their families suffer as we do.

Remember that Sudden Cardiac Arrest can happen to anyone, anytime, anyplace and we all must learn to know what SCA is and the importance of AEDs. Learn CPR and AED and be prepared. The life you save could be your own or your loved ones.

Feel free to contact us.
Thank you,
Rita Helgeson
Andrew's mother
RHFH@comcast.net

Rita & Richard Helgeson
"Andrew's Parents"
R. Andrew Helgeson Memorial Foundation
A 501(c)(3) Public Charity

Posted by: Rita Helgeson | July 2, 2008 12:48 AM | Report abuse

Carlin was a cocaine user and had a lot of heart trouble in the past. Russert, as far as we know, experienced neither of those things.

Posted by: sean mcveigh | July 2, 2008 3:50 PM | Report abuse

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