By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/13/2004 5:38:20 PM ET 2004-09-13T21:38:20

Former President Bill Clinton enjoyed the sun on his porch Sunday. On Monday, his wife said he will be out of action for several weeks — but is doing fine.

"I'm absolutely confident that he will be even better than ever once he finishes his recovery period," says Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

Across the country, doctors say, the Clinton case is prompting people to talk about heart disease.

Many, they say, are asking how a 58-year-old man — who after years of bad eating habits changed his ways, lost weight, and got regular checkups — still ended up with bad heart disease. Does that mean that the damage cannot be undone?

"It is never too late. It is always time to take awareness of your risk factors to get them under control because whatever you do in that regard is going to reduce them in the long term," says Dr. Robert Bonow of Northwestern University Medical Center, and a former president of the American Heart Association.

In the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart, dangerous cholesterol-containing plaque builds up over years at a different rate in every person.

"We don't have a crystal ball," says Dr. Bonow. "The rate of progression is very difficult to predict, and even in people in whom it appears to be progressing relatively rapidly this year, sometimes that will slow down."

But can't the checkups, especially the stress test, tell you if the risk of heart disease is imminent?

"Even the best stress tests do have what we call false positives where you have apparent disease when you're healthy or false negative where a test looks normal despite having advanced disease," says Dr. Bonow.

So, the experts hope that Clinton's case will awaken more Americans to the need to control risk factors no matter what exams show — the earlier the better — and not find another excuse to ignore America's number one killer.

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