Caring Currents

What Michael Jackson's Early Death Can Teach Us About Heart Health

Last updated: Jun 25, 2009

michael jackson

Michael Jackson's death from cardiac arrest at the age of 50 stopped me short, just as it stopped short much of the world. How could such a thing be possible? The King of Pop may have been a controversial figure in the past few years, but he's also the iconic image of eternal youth. How could his heart have stopped?

We don't know yet many of the details about how Michael Jackson died; it's certainly possible drugs could have played a role, as could have many other factors. But it's also possible that Jackson, busy preparing for a comeback concert series, succumbed to stress, which puts enormous strain on the heart.

What we know for sure is that when something like this happens, it causes all of us to face our own mortality. It's a "sit up and take notice" opportunity to think about our own health, and the risk factors like stress that increase our chances of having a [heart problem] ( If, like me, these thoughts are occurring to you, now's the time to resolve to do something about them.

As it happens, I spent this week interviewing some top cardiac health specialists for upcoming articles for And what I heard gave me some valuable insights into what we should all be doing to [protect our hearts] ( Here goes:

Your Blood Pressure Should Be As Low As Possible. The standard numbers are 120/80; if your blood pressure is higher than this, see your doctor right away. But, the experts told me, lower is basically always better. If you have a family history of heart problems, you might want to take a blood pressure lowering medication even if your numbers sound fine.

Low Cholesterol Is Key. Ask the experts, and they basically wish statins -- the medications that lower cholesterol -- could be put in the water supply. Just kidding, sort of. If your LDL (bad cholesterol) is high, or your HDL (good cholesterol) is low, talk to your doctor about prescribing a statin. It's like buying a bullet-proof vest for your heart.

Raise Your Good Cholesterol with Exercise. The best and fastest way to raise your HDL level is with exercise. And 30 minutes a day of activity (yes, mowing the lawn counts) will do it. So get up and move everyday, even if it's just to stroll a few blocks with a friend.

Don't Forget About Triglycerides. Somehow we neglect to focus on these "bad fats," but they provide an important clue to your heart health. Your annual checkup should include a triglyceride reading; if your triglycerides are over 150, it's time to get help. These fats come from fried food, fast food, and eating a lot of red meat, so changing your diet is the first step.

Reduce Stress. I'm as guilty as the next person of living a high-stress lifestyle, and when the doctor says "you need to have less stress," I laugh. But if you can't reduce the stressors in your life, what you can do is stress-proof your body with techniques such as exercise, yoga, meditation, and deep breathing.

Michael Jackson's representative says he was living with "more stress than anybody can tolerate," with a series of comeback concerts scheduled to begin next month. That's really sad to hear, and the result is even sadder. Let's raise a glass to the youngest Jackson brother, who to this day gets us out on the dance floor every time the DJ plays Thriller. And let's show we're listening by not letting it happen to us.