Health & Medicine

December 17, 2012

For many baby boomers, heart attack is a wakeup call

At 61, Les Finke has recently returned to work as executive director of Sacramento's Albert Einstein Center senior residence community after open heart surgery and a six-way bypass early in October.

At 61, Les Finke has recently returned to work as executive director of Sacramento's Albert Einstein Center senior residence community after open heart surgery and a six-way bypass early in October.

"It blew everyone's mind that I was going in for open heart surgery," Finke said. "It created a sense of anxiety here. But the experience really put me in touch with these residents."

He likes to kid people now that he's part of the frail elderly population, too. But what's no joke is the fact that heart disease remains the nation's top killer – and the second-highest cause of death of the baby boom generation. Over time, according to National Institutes of Health figures, at least one in three Americans will develop cardiovascular problems.

For male baby boomers in particular, the heart attack risk past age 50 can be high.

Think Bill Clinton, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery at age 58 in 2004 and another procedure in 2010, and broadcaster Tim Russert, who died of a massive heart attack at 58 in 2008. Or singer Davy Jones, dead this spring at 66.

Even so, research suggests that baby boomers don't take cardiovascular disease as seriously as they should. The age-related illnesses that boomers fear most are cancer – which is the leading cause of death among boomers – and dementia, not heart attack or strokes, according to a recent survey.

"This cardiovascular story is way overlooked," said Dr. David Roberts, medical director of the Sutter Heart and Vascular Institute. "The focus for the past 10 years has been on raising women's awareness, and that's great.

"But as a group, cardiovascular disease has always affected men earlier and in greater numbers."

Medical advances of the past four decades – in particular, the development of effective medications to control cholesterol and hypertension – have decreased Americans' incidence of death from heart disease by half.

At the same time, both for better and for worse, lifestyles have changed.

Medical experts know that baby boomers are less likely to smoke than their parents' generation and more likely to go to the doctor on a regular basis. But boomers are also less likely to exercise, in part because of their sedentary jobs, and far more likely to be overweight or obese.

"The classic story from years ago was of a guy in the prime of life dropping dead at 40," Roberts said. "That's dropped in incidence, but we can't forget that. We can't get complacent.

"The fact is, baby boomers today are all at risk. We need to make sure we keep focused on that. And men get heart disease earlier."

Women's estrogen levels, which typically don't decline until menopause, keep most from developing heart problems in their 40s and 50s, researchers have found.

On the other hand, men with a family history of heart disease – especially those with another risk factor, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure – are prime candidates for early heart disease, Roberts said.

"The most important thing is family history," he said. "If everyone in the family has coronary disease, the question isn't if but when you're going to get it."

A heart attack at 51

Chris Shuping's father had a heart attack in his early 60s. But Shuping – 51 and a Franklin High School business teacher – didn't worry about heart disease. He knew his cholesterol was higher than it should have been, but he was slender and active, a former college athlete who played competitive soccer until age 48.

On April 28, he returned to his east Sacramento home after a hot yoga class. Suddenly, he felt a tightness in his chest, then nausea, then pain under his left arm and numbness in the fingers of his left hand.

He was having a major heart attack.

He drove himself to the emergency room, and within 90 minutes of his first symptoms, doctors cleared an arterial blockage.

"It was a shock," said Shuping. "In the hospital, I was definitely the youngest guy in the cardiac unit. The nursing staff was talking about me. It was an eye-opener."

Now, Shuping takes a pharmaceutical regimen to address blood pressure and cholesterol problems. He also does exactly what doctors recommend for everyone: He exercises three times a week on the treadmill or elliptical machine, and he eats a sensible Mediterranean diet, light on fat, heavy on fresh produce and seafood.

"The doctor said my problem was 90 percent hereditary and 10 percent diet," said Shuping. "I have to control what I can."

Unless the entire baby boom generation embraces the benefits of moderate diet and exercise, medical experts say, more than 40 percent of Americans will have heart disease by 2030, when the youngest members of the boomer generation hit age 66.

So dire are those projections that the American Heart Association says the baby boom generation is on a collision course with heart disease.

"We definitely are," said Dr. Diane Sobkowicz, an Auburn cardiologist and local heart association spokesman.

"The problem is the way we're going in terms of exercise and diet. Medication puts a Band-Aid on it, but it doesn't take care of the problem."

Heredity is major factor

While increased longevity raises the possibility of the eventual development of cardiac problems – older hearts simply weaken over time – recent heart association research shows that active, healthy adults in their 40s and 50s today can generally expect to delay the onset of heart disease by seven years.

Finke wasn't that lucky. His parents, in their late 80s, have both had cardiac problems in recent years – but more alarmingly, one of his grandfathers died of a heart attack at 64.

Like Shuping, Finke has long been dedicated to exercising and eating right. But the weight of heredity proved a bigger factor.

"The irony of the whole thing, which blew away my family and board of directors, is that I've always been into good health," Finke said. "I exercise five days a week. I do Pilates almost every day.

"But for the past five or six years and only on the golf course, I'd feel an irregular heartbeat. I'd have shortness of breath and be lightheaded. I'd sometimes have to get on my knees, I was so overwhelmed."

Late this summer, he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. In the course of monitoring his heart, doctors discovered that he also had developed six blocked arteries.

On Oct. 2, two days after the 100th birthday party for one of his favorite residents at the center, he underwent open heart surgery. Now he's on a daily dose of aspirin and medication to stabilize his arteries, and he goes to cardiac rehab class three days a week in addition to resuming other exercise.

"I can't say my lifestyle has changed," Finke said. "I've always had a good lifestyle. I see people in cardio class, and they've smoked or they're dealing with obesity. Everything you read about."

He returned to work in mid-November, ready to resume life as he used to live it, more in touch than ever with the health issues he now shares with many of his elderly residents.

"I came back to a standing ovation," he said. "So many people have taken me under their wing and genuinely support me. I'm so grateful how things have worked out for me."

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