Last week I came face-to-face with Sudden Cardiac Death in a member of my own family. My Uncle Grady was five years old when I was born, far closer to my age than to my mother’s. We shared our childhood and a family history of diabetes. My uncle had those childhood illnesses that sometimes challenge red-haired children – asthma, allergies, and atopic dermatitis. Luckily, I escaped those. We discovered jogging when the rest of American did. (That was during the 70’s, for the youngsters among you.) My uncle never really took to it, probably because of those same allergy and asthma problems. I’m not sure that he ever exercised after high school.
He started smoking in his early twenties, and never quit. He was fifty pounds overweight. He lived a high-stress life, choosing a career in the high-risk field of oil exploration. His last doctor visit was in 2001, for a flu shot. His last EKG was in 1989 – for an insurance physical. He never complained of any physical problems and so left the impression that he was healthy.
He had a huge number of risk factors for heart disease. He may have had undiagnosed diabetes. Who knows what his cholesterol and triglyceride levels were? I can predict that he never took one aspirin, much less one every day. It didn’t take a medical degree to predict that my beloved uncle was at risk for a heart attack.
The trouble with being the only physician in a non-medical family is that I am the automatic authority on all things medical. So, what was I to say to my distraught family?
-That he should have had checkups?
- That he should have stopped smoking?
-That he should have lost weight, or exercised, or all the above?
My only answer was to say that it was a tragic loss. The real tragedy is that his was a preventable death. The number one killer of both men and women over age 35 in America is heart disease. Please talk to the people you love about minimizing, or at the very least, RECOGNIZING their risk factors. Then talk to them about ways to minimize that risk, because it is not always possible to mend a broken heart.