Celebrities and their maladies are a boon to public health. They put a well-known face to a medical condition and they give doctors (and medical reporters) an excuse to spotlight a disease and educate the public. Today, it’s Bill Clinton and his heart. Experts aren’t overly concerned about the former president’s condition. Stents—mesh scaffolds used to prop open clogged arteries—are used routinely in heart patients around the world and Clinton is likely to get back to his busy life very soon.
But heart disease, America’s No. 1 killer, is a big problem. It accounts for 26 percent of deaths every year in the U.S. and costs more than $300 billion in health care, medications and lost productivity. Prevention is key, even though “it’s not sexy,” Dr. Clyde Yancy, president of the American Heart Association, said in a roundtable discussion with three other leading cardiologists. Yes, researchers are working hard to uncover new clues about the genes that play a role in heart disease, but the reality is that the unsexy stuff is what really matters now. “We know a lot more about the root causes of heart disease than we did 20 years ago,” said Dr. Paul Ridker, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “But it's still about going to the gym, exercising regularly, throwing out the cigarettes, and changing lifestyle.”
Clinton is lucky. He had access to excellent care before and after his quadruple bypass in 2004. Too many other patients leave the hospital after a heart procedure, then run into a double whammy: they don’t pay adequate attention to their health and they don’t seek or get the follow-up care they need. “Whatever the issue is, the end result is that about 25 percent [of patients] are coming back to the hospital within 30 days,” Yancy said. “That’s way unacceptable.”
Statins, bypass surgery, and stents are all critical in the treatment of heart disease. But the best tool Americans can get their hands on right this minute is information. Read up on the warning signs at the American Heart Association and talk to your doctor about your family history and any symptoms you’ve noticed. “I’m a big believer that an educated patient is a good patient,” Ridker said.