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Russert's death has people talking about heart health

Ventura County Star
Sunday, 08/22/2008
by Dr. Irving Kent Loh

The unexpected death of an ostensibly healthy and young individual is always a tragedy for friends and families. When that person is famous and widely admired, that loss often takes on a unique quality as if one had a personal relationship with that individual. For many, that was the sense of shock and loss felt with the death June 13 of Tim Russert, perhaps one of the highest-profile news people of this generation.

One thought many had was: "How could this happen?" Russert was successful, wealthy, relatively young for heart disease and obviously energetic and active. Yet, apparently without warning, he suffered a sudden cardiac death from which he could not be resuscitated, despite early arrival of well-trained medical personnel in the middle of a metropolis. If this could happen to Russert, what chance do the rest of us have?

Without detailed knowledge of Russert's medical history, I have gleaned several key pieces of information from the extensive media coverage of the death of one of their own. Russert was clearly overweight, which may contribute to a number of critical cardiovascular risk factors.

He apparently had a combined lipid abnormality, that is, elevated cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, and elevated triglycerides for which he was being treated by a statin. He had an enlarged heart, suggested chronic cardiac remodeling induced by uncontrolled triggers (physical or molecular).

He apparently was not diabetic nor an active smoker. It was also reported that he had a modestly positive coronary artery calcium scan a few years ago and that he recently passed a cardiac stress test.

How do we put this together to make sense of a seemingly senseless event? The key may be in understanding the actual event that occurred in Russert's heart.

Fresh clot in coronary artery

The autopsy confirmed the presence of significant plaque buildup in several of the arteries feeding his heart muscle, and that a fresh clot was found in a critical coronary artery. That closure abruptly interrupted the vital blood supply to his heart that caused his heart attack and the fatal heart rhythm disturbance known as ventricular fibrillation.

The location and extent of the sudden blockage did not allow even sophisticated resuscitation techniques to rescue his heart, though a critical factor, the time from event to initiation of CPR, is unknown. The faster one begins CPR, the greater the probability of a saved life.

Take care of body

Many, if not most, middle-aged Americans have some plaque (the atherosclerotic tissue) in the walls of their major coronary arteries. Risk factors accelerate the deposition and extent of plaque. Genetic predisposition, high blood pressure, smoking, unmanaged diabetes, blood fat abnormalities are the major culprits. Being overweight and poor dietary choices contribute to many of the risk factors.

These risk factors lead to the inexorable progressive buildup of plaque, but it is now felt that some trigger either ruptures or erodes the lining of the blood vessel that covers the plaque.

Once this disruption occurs, the blood contacts the plaque material and the clotting reaction begins and causes an acute blockage. That trigger may be inflammation.

An artery can be 60 to 70 percent blocked without symptoms. That's why a stress test, so useful for sorting out symptoms of chest pain, is so useless in predicting heart attacks. In years past, I have had patients who passed their stress test and had a heart attack within a few days. Indeed, about 40 percent of people with their first heart attack had no symptoms before the fatal event.

The preventive strategies now are to identify all modifiable risk factors, aggressively treat them with lifestyle changes (weight loss, diet, exercise) and medications if needed. The goals of therapy are known, and abundant evidence exists indicating that successful treatment to those goals improves survival.

Reducing the inflammatory vascular environment by these medications, as well as avoiding smoking and fatty foods, and, if desired, modest use of alcohol, chocolate and now possibly coffee and tea, may also help because of their putative anti-oxidant effects.

Even with optimal implementation of these strategies, one can't save everyone. But one can certainly improve the odds. One should talk to his or her physician to assess and, if necessary, manage the risks.

— Dr. Irving Kent Loh is program director for Cardiovascular Services, Ventura Heart and Vascular Institute, Community Memorial Healthcare System, and medical director of the Ventura Heart Institute in Thousand Oaks.