--Dr.David Fein, specialist in Preventive Medicine at the Princeton Longevity Center--
Yesterday morning I caught Diane Rehm's interview of Steve McKee, a writer for the Wall Street Journal and the the author of My Father's Heart - A Son's Journey. Here's the promo to Diane's interview:
"After watching his father die from a massive heart attack when he was only fifty, Steve McKee decided to do his best to avoid a similar fate. But after a life-time of healthy eating and exercise, he one day discovered he also suffered from heart disease."
I was anxious to hear what McKee had to say. To hear how he ended up with heart disease, in spite of all his efforts to do everything he could to not meet the same fate as his father. McKee's dad John had his first heart attack in 1963 at age 44, and his fatal one came six years later at age 50. Grandfather Jack was dead of "probable coronary occlusion" at 53, and great-grandfather Patrick was also dead at 53 of a probable stroke.
Remember, this was back in the 60's. McKee's dad was a heavy smoker, had a stressful job, and the idea of heart healthy eating, exercise, statins, bypass surgery, coronary catheterization and angioplasties were pipedreams.
McKee's story has alot to do with his anger at his dad for dying, for not taking care of himself, for giving up, for not being there for all the milestone's in his life. High school and college graduation, his marriage to Noreen in 1978, and the adoption of his son Patrick in 1990.
He vowed this would never happen to him. He'd be different. Steve was an avid runner until well past 40, and then turned to a rowing machine for his workouts. He watched what he ate and never smoked. He wasn't going to be saddled with a stressful job. He'd write, teach, have a calling, not a career. Somehow, writing for the Wall Street Journal doesn't sound like my idea of a stress-free job, but McKee claims otherwise.
Here's the part of his story that most interested me:
In 2005, after years of running, exercise and eating right, Steve turns 52. He's near that age when all the McKee men meet their moment with heart disease.
I brought all of this with me to an "executive physical" at the Princeton Longevity Center in Princeton, NJ, on tax day 2005. This eight hours of treadmill test, nutritional assessment and full body scan wasn't my idea. I was 52 years old. I was in great shape. I ate right. What was the point? But Noreen insisted. The stress test put me in the 86th percentile for men my age. I had the aerobic capacity of a man eight years younger, the recovery rate of a man 20 years younger. In the diet analysis I was just a few points shy of an "excellent" score. The body scan rounded out the day, and then all that remained was the consult with the doctor. I was ready for my lifetime achievement award.
In Dr. Fein's office McKee learned that in spite of everything he had done to not inherit his father's legacy, he was staring straight at a computer screen showing a blockage in 20% of his left anterior descending coronary artery, about the same in his right, and his risk of having a heart atack in the next 12 months was 10% or more. If he didn't treat it, Dr. Fein said the risk would "only compound, making a heart attack a near certainty".
McKee's first reaction was that he was failure. He was worried that he'd never set foot in a gym again. He was devastated, and the worst of it was, as he saw it, "I had become that part of Dad I had worked so hard never to be."
In the end, McKee changed his mind. Dr. Fein laid it straight out.
"There is basically no end to the ways that having kept yourself fit has improved your situation," Dr. Fein said. I'd lowered my insulin levels, improved my blood lipids, built collateral arteries in my heart around any blockages, to name just a few. The list was endless. I would probably already have had a heart attack by now -- at best. More likely, I probably wouldn't be alive to be getting this news. I was even paying forward, banking reserves on any heart attack that I might someday have. "The odds that you'll do well if you ever do have a heart attack are very high," Fein said --the most left-handed compliment I have ever heard.
In spite of his aversion to medications, McKee is now taking statins and happy for the option. He knew he couldn't keep up the super strict diet that would be required. He had tried that in the 1980's with the Pritikin/Ornish regimen, and even though he was able to get his cholesterol levels way down, it just wasn't practical in the long term. Of course, he continues to exercise and is grateful at how far medicine and our knowledge of prevention has come since 1969.
I can't imagine my life without all that running and rowing and biking and all the rest. Day after day. It's who I am, because of my Dad.
Steve McKee's story strikes so close to home for me. My dad suffered a massive stroke at age 69 that left him alive, but unable to talk, read or communicate for 16 years. What saddens me the most is that he never had the chance to really know his grandchildren.
My dad never went to a doctor until after it was too late. He never knew he had high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or that he was considered obese by today's standards. He's the reason I started exercising and eating right over 30 years ago. Steve's story makes me glad I did!