I was back in the gym last night for a pretty rigorous, fast-paced workout: 10 miles on the bike (average heart rate of 114) and a good half-hour of upper body and (a little) ab work on the machines. Worked up a pretty good sweat. Felt pretty good about myself.
Then, this morning, I stumbled across a piece in The New York Times that was trying to explain the sudden heart attack that killed NBC political guru Tim Russert, a guy who had apparently shown no symptoms of heart disease and then simply keeled over and died at his desk.
As Denise Grady explains, Russert’s death has raised serious questions about the efficacy of heart disease treatment options. The 58-year-old Russert was taking drugs to lower his blood pressure and cholesterol, rode an exercise bike regularly, had annual stress tests and was doing his best to lose weight. All these behaviors seemed to be working; according to his doctor, Russert had about a 5 percent chance of dying of a heart attack in the next 10 years.
So much for those odds….
Now, of course, anyone who’s been seeing their doctor regularly and who’s been doing what they think they should be doing to prevent cardiac arrest is going to start wondering whether they’re just wasting their time and ought to just get back to eating donuts and fried chicken like they used to do because they like donuts and fried chicken a lot more than they like to exercise. I mean, a lot of good all that stuff did Tim Russert, right?
Doctors like to point out in cases like this that medicine is not an exact science; you can do everything your doctor tells you to do to stay healthy and you’re still going to die at some point — maybe tomorrow, even if you’ve got important stuff to do.
There are no guarantees.
Every one of my father’s siblings suffered a heart attack at some point in their lives. Most of them died. A couple of them, like my dad, survived the heart attack and succumbed later to cancer.
So, I’m pretty well-versed in this whole heart disease thing. And even though none of my siblings have keeled over from myocardial infarction yet, we’re not taking anything for granted. We’ve all given up smoking (except my little brother, who’s just stubborn) and everybody seems to be getting at least a little exercise from time to time, and we all know a lot more about healthy eating than my dad did back in the ’50s.
A friend of mine likes to point out that you can eat well, get plenty of exercise, live a low-stress lifestyle … and then get hit by a bus while crossing the street to get to your yoga class. And she’s right. There are no guarantees. Maybe Russert would’ve died five years ago if he hadn’t started exercising and taking drugs to lower his blood pressure, etc. Or maybe not.
My grandfather lived to be 93 and he smoked a cigar everyday and liked to drink whiskey and favored rocking chairs over exercise bikes.
So, you never know.
I’m about a year younger than Russert was at his death, and I’m doing everything I can to keep myself vertical for the long haul. But, it’s not really about avoiding the Grim Reaper, who we all know lurks around every corner and can maybe pluck us out of this earthly realm pretty much whenever he chooses (who really knows?). It’s about feeling good right here, right now.
After all, that’s all we’ve got, isn’t it?