Caring Currents

What the Death of Baby Boomer Icon John Hughes Can Teach You About Heart Disease

Last updated: Aug 10, 2009

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Last week, film director John Hughes, an iconic figure to Baby Boomers for his '80s-era movies about teenage angst, died of a heart attack at age 59. The outpouring of nostalgia and grief was palpable, and it wasn't just because Hughes inspired such affection, though he was a beloved figure. It was also a collective cultural gasp, because 59-year-old Baby Boomer icons are not supposed to have heart attacks while visiting family in New York, which is how Hughes died.

I did a little research about Boomers and heart attacks, and came upon some startling information. Our generation, it seems, is experiencing heart disease in higher numbers than any previous generation - and we can't blame cigarettes, prime villain for our parents' heart disease. The generation of adults currently between the ages of 46 and 64 (known as boomers thanks to a post WW II spike in the national birth rate) is less likely to smoke than our parents and grandparents. Yet we're getting heart disease earlier, and worse, than our parents and grandparents.

So what's to blame? Weight gain, pure and simple. The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that 73 percent of men and 60 percent of women ages 45 to 54 have a body mass index of 25 or higher, considered over the healthy weight limit for their height. And more than 30 percent of both sexes has a BMI of 30 or higher, which means they're considered obese. Along with weight gain comes elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, and hardening of the arteries -- all risk factors for heart disease.

Get even more specific, and the AHA's statistics are even more alarming:

"¢ 43 percent of men and 44 percent of women ages 55 to 64 have high blood pressure.

"¢ Among younger boomers, those ages 45 to 54, 34 percent of men and 25 percent of women have high blood pressure.

"¢ Between 59 and 65 percent (depending on race) of men ages 45 to 54 have total cholesterol over 200 mg/200dL.

"¢ Among women ages 45 to 54, 63 to 69 percent, depending on race, have elevated cholesterol.

What's more, according to Boomers themselves, they feel worse, too. An ongoing nationwide survey of Americans over ag 50 called the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) found that those born between 1948 and 1953 reported having more pain, chronic health conditions, drinking problems, and psychiatric conditions compared with the two previous generations, those born between 1936 and 1941, and those born between 1942 and 1947. The youngest group of seniors was also more likely to have reported difficulty in walking, climbing steps, getting up from a chair, kneeling or crouching, and doing other normal daily physical tasks. Yikes!

So what can we do? Here's a quick primer on taking charge of your heart health.

"¢ Stop smoking. Just keep trying; statistics show many people have to quit ten times or more before it sticks.

"¢ Reduce blood cholesterol. Fat lodged in your arteries triggers heart attack and stroke. If diet and exercise alone don't get those numbers down, then medication is key. Aim for total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dL with LDL (bad) Cholesterol less than 100mg/dL and HDL (good) Cholesterol at 40 mg/dL or higher for men and 50 mg/dL or higher for women

"¢ Lower high blood pressure with exercise, diet, and drugs, if necessary. It's the single largest risk factor for stroke. Goal is less than 120/80 mmHg.

"¢ Be physically active every day. Research has shown that getting 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week can help lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and take off pounds or prevent them coming on board in the first place.

"¢ Aim for a healthy weight, which means a BMI of 25 or below.

"¢ Manage diabetes; even better, manage pre-diabetes so it doesn't turn into diabetes. Get a fasting glucose test, and, if you're at risk, talk to your doctor.

"¢ Reduce stress by taking up yoga, meditation, walking, or another activity that leaves you feeling calm.

"¢ Limit alcohol to a drink a day or less. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause heart failure, and lead to stroke. Also, alcohol has lots of hidden calories, so cutting it out is an easy way to jump-start a diet.