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posted: 3/4/2013 6:00 AM

Baby boomers on 'collision course' with heart disease

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By Anita Creamer
Sacramento Bee

At 61, Les Finke has recently returned to work as executive director of a senior residence community after open-heart surgery and a six-way bypass early in October.

"It blew everyone's mind that I was going in for open-heart surgery," said Finke, of Sacramento, Calf. "But the experience really put me in touch with these residents."

He likes to kid people now that he's part of the frail elderly population, too. But what's no joke is that heart disease remains the nation's top killer -- and the second-highest cause of death of the baby-boom generation.

Over time, according to National Institutes of Health figures, at least one in three Americans will develop cardiovascular problems.

For male baby boomers in particular, the heart attack risk past age 50 can be high.

Think Bill Clinton, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery at age 58 in 2004 and another procedure in 2010, and broadcaster Tim Russert, who died of a massive heart attack at 58 in 2008. Or singer Davy Jones, dead this spring at 66.

Even so, research suggests that baby boomers don't take cardiovascular disease as seriously as they should. The age-related illnesses that boomers fear most are cancer and dementia, according to a recent survey.

"This cardiovascular story is way overlooked," said Dr. David Roberts, medical director of the Sutter (Calif.) Heart and Vascular Institute. "The focus for the past 10 years has been on raising women's awareness, and that's great.

"But as a group, cardiovascular disease has always affected men earlier and in greater numbers."

Medical advances of the past four decades -- in particular, the development of effective medications to control cholesterol and hypertension -- have decreased Americans' incidence of death from heart disease by half.

At the same time, both for better and for worse, lifestyles have changed.

Medical experts know that baby boomers are less likely to smoke than their parents' generation and more likely to go to the doctor on a regular basis. But boomers are also less likely to exercise, and far more likely to be overweight or obese.

Women's estrogen levels, which typically don't decline until menopause, keep most from developing heart problems in their 40s and 50s, researchers have found.

On the other hand, men with a family history of heart disease -- especially those with another risk factor, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure -- are prime candidates for early heart disease, Roberts said.

"The most important thing is family history," he said. "If everyone in the family has coronary disease, the question isn't if but when you're going to get it."

Unless the entire baby-boom generation embraces the benefits of moderate diet and exercise, medical experts say, more than 40 percent of Americans will have heart disease by 2030, when the youngest members of the boomer generation hit age 66.

So dire are those projections that the American Heart Association says the baby-boom generation is on a collision course with heart disease.

"The problem is the way we're going in terms of exercise and diet, " said Dr. Diane Sobkowicz, a cardiologist and heart association spokesman. "Medication puts a Band-Aid on it, but it doesn't take care of the problem."

While increased longevity raises the possibility of the eventual development of cardiac problems -- older hearts simply weaken over time -- recent heart association research shows that active, healthy adults in their 40s and 50s today can generally expect to delay the onset of heart disease by seven years.

Finke has long been dedicated to exercising and eating right. But the weight of heredity proved a bigger factor.

Now he's on a daily dose of aspirin and medication to stabilize his arteries, and he goes to cardiac rehab class three days a week in addition to resuming other exercise.

"I can't say my lifestyle has changed," Finke said. "I've always had a good lifestyle. I see people in cardio class, and they've smoked or they're dealing with obesity. Everything you read about."

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