Despite the media blathering over how Mr. Russert’s tragic death from heart attack could not have been predicted, it turns out that he had undergone a heart scan several years ago.
A New York Times article, A Search for Answers in Russert’s Death, reported:
Given the great strides that have been made in preventing and treating heart disease, what explains Tim Russert’s sudden death last week at 58 from a heart attack?
The answer, at least in part, is that although doctors knew that Mr. Russert, the longtime moderator of “Meet the Press” on NBC, had coronary artery disease and were treating him for it, they did not realize how severe the disease was because he did not have chest pain or other telltale symptoms that would have justified the kind of invasive tests needed to make a definitive diagnosis. In that sense, his case was sadly typical: more than 50 percent of all men who die of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms, the American Heart Association says.
It is not clear whether Mr. Russert’s death could have been prevented. He was doing nearly all he could to lower his risk. He took blood pressure pills and a statin drug to control his cholesterol, he worked out every day on an exercise bike, and he was trying to lose weight, his doctors said on Monday. And still it was not enough.
“What is surprising,” Dr. Newman said, “is that the severity of the anatomical findings would not be predicted from his clinical situation, the absence of symptoms and his performing at a very high level of exercise.”
Buried deeper in this article, the fact that Mr. Russert had a heart scan score of 210 in 1998 is revealed.
That bit of information is damning. Readers of The Heart Scan Blog know that heart scan scores are expected to grow at a rate of 30% per year. This would put Mr. Russert’s heart scan score at 2895 in 2008. But the two doctors providing care for Mr. Russert were advising the conventional treatments: prescribing cholesterol drugs, blood pressure medication, managing blood sugar, and doing periodic stress tests.
Conventional efforts usually slow the progression of heart scan scores to 14-24% per year. Let’s assume the rate of increase was only 14% per year. That would put Mr. Russert’s 2008 score at 779.
A simple calculation from known information in 1998 clearly, obviously, and inarguably predicted his death. Recall that heart scan scores of 1000 or greater are associated with annual–ANNUAL–risk for heart attack and death of 20-25% if no preventive action is taken. The meager prevention efforts taken by Mr. Russert’s doctors did indeed reduce risk modestly, but it did not eliminate risk.
We know that growing plaque is active plaque. Active plaque means rupture-prone plaque. Rupture prone plaque means continuing risk for heart attack and death. Heart attack and death means the approach used in Mr. Russert was a miserable failure.
While the press blathers on about how heart disease is a tragedy, as Mr. Russert’s doctors squirm under the fear of criticism, the answers have been right here all alone. It sometimes takes a reminder like Mr. Russert’s tragic passing to remind us that tracking plaque is a enormously useful, potentially lifesaving approach to coronary heart disease.
Who needs to go next? Matt Lauer, Oprah, Jay Leno, some other media personality? Someone close to you? Can this all happen right beneath the nose of your doctor, even your cardiologist?
I don’t need to remind readers of The Heart Scan Blog that heart disease is 1) measurable, 2) trackable, 3) predictable. Mr. Russert’s future was clear as long ago as 1998. Every year that passed, his future became clearer and clearer, yet his doctors fumbled miserably.
Copyright 2008 William Davis, MD
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