If there's something positive about the death of celebrities, it's that they create opportunities to educate the average Jane and Joe Public about diseases that also affect them.
In the recent cases of the great, beloved journalist Tim Russert and the iconic, counterculture comedian George Carlin, physicians have a window of opportunity to tell people about the risks of heart disease, which remains the nation's No. 1 killer of men and women, and what they can do to prevent it.
"As a country, we need to continue our commitment to advancing medicine by increasing research funding for heart and other diseases. This funding has leveled off, or even declined, in recent years," said Dr. Cam Patterson, chief of the Division of Cardiology and director of the Carolina Cardiovascular Biology Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.
"Advances in heart research and changes in the way physicians manage heart disease have made it a chronic illness. Modern therapies, such as statins and the simple drug aspirin, together with our knowledge of prevention, have prolonged the lives of many people who, just 30 years ago, would have died much earlier," Patterson said.
That includes Russert, who was being treated for heart disease. He would have wanted us to debate heart disease, to bring it out into the open for full disclosure, to go on record, and then to go back and vote for change.
"Did Russert work too much? Yes. Did he eat right? Not always. Could anything have been done to prevent his fatal heart attack? Maybe. An aspirin a day, for many people, is a good option. Slowing down a little might have helped. Raking politicians over hot coals can't be easy, but then we have to enjoy our jobs," Patterson said.
Carlin, who had multiple heart attacks and certainly benefited from new therapies, once said "death is caused by swallowing small amounts of saliva over a long period of time."
"He's not too far off," Patterson said. Some of us were dealt a genetic hand with bad hearts in spades. Family history, in fact, is the largest risk factor for heart disease.
Even then, we can live longer, healthier lives by adjusting our lifestyle.
In a fashion that might make Carlin smile, here are seven dirty words 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, 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 - 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 - 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
We can debate it all day, but there's nothing funny about heart disease.
"If these seven dirty words about heart disease ring true for you, check with your doctor.
It's not too late to do something that will decrease your risk of dying from a heart attack, and improve and prolong your life," Patterson said.