Like many men his age, Gregory Ameo, 53, struggles with high blood pressure and cholesterol. He hates pills, but accepts them grudgingly. He eats better than he used to and takes walks for exercise. He takes fish oil and garlic, in case they might help with the cholesterol.
But when Ameo heard of Tim Russert's death last week from a sudden heart attack at 58, it sent a shudder down his spine, and not just because he's a longtime viewer of "Meet the Press." If it could happen to the youthful-looking Russert, he figured, it could happen to anyone — and of course to him.
News of any death often forces at least a glimmer of one's own mortality. But for baby boomers like Ameo, this death has been particularly alarming. Many have called their physicians with concerns, or brought it up with their therapists.
It's not just that it seemed so sudden, even though it quickly emerged that Russert was being treated for coronary artery disease. It's that in an age where 60 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 40, this death reminded many that when it comes to your health, 58 is, well, 58.
Introducing the fear factor
"Boy, look at this," Ameo, a retired transit worker, remembers thinking when he heard the news. "Suddenly he's gone, and I'm basically the same age. With my cholesterol, I sometimes thought, eh, I'll get it down. And you put it off. Something like this brings it to the front burner."
His doctor has been hearing the same from a number of patients. "We all have this feeling of immortality in our 20s to our 40s, even our 50s," says Dr. Gary Rogg, an internist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. "You look in the mirror and you think, I feel good, I feel fine. I'm not the one who's going to get the heart attack."
Inquiries have been coming in from regular patients and new ones, too, says Dr. Rogg, with questions about cholesterol, blood pressure and the like. Most have been from men; Women tend to call about their spouses.
But women should be concerned about themselves, too — heart disease is the number one killer of women in this country. Raising awareness of that, and of the risks to both men and women, is a constant struggle, doctors say. So Russert's death, tragic as it was, may serve to educate.
‘How do I know this won't be me?’
"When this happens to someone at the peak of popularity in their professional life, it really gets people's attention," says Dr. Sidney Smith, a cardiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "If anything good can come out of this, it's that people will be more aware and take steps to decrease their risk."
Like Dr. Rogg, the New York internist, Dr. Smith's practice has sensed the anxiety surrounding Russert's death. "We're seeing a lot of inquiries," he says. "People are saying, 'How do I know this won't be me?'"
Such concerns have come up in psychotherapy, too. "I think anyone — including psychiatrists — who's the same age or within a stone's throw can identify with this situation," says Dr. Bruce Levin, a psychiatrist in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. "Certainly it's a kind of wakeup call to our mortality."
Some patients, says Dr. Levin, are also thinking about how they might be working too hard, at the expense of their health. They may fear they'll be punished for that. "It stirs up and stimulates their own conflicts," he says.
Age and your heart
Particularly jarring to many people is that Russert looked so vigorous. "Tim has spurred a great deal of interest because he looked young, vibrant and healthy," says Dr. Douglas Zipes, professor at Indiana University and a former president of the American College of Cardiology. "The age of 58 is young today, but it's not young for this kind of event. Sad as it is, it's not that uncommon."
That's certainly caught the attention of Doyle Murphy, who happens to be 58 himself, and has cholesterol problems. The high school athletic director from Henderson, Tenn., does a lot of walking during the day, but not enough serious exercise. That came back to haunt him when he heard about Russert.
"I thought, this guy, with all the medical care he has access to — it really concerned me," says Murphy. A day or two after the news, he thought he was having his own heart attack while working on his boat. Turned out he wasn't, but he went to his doctor and peppered him with questions.
He got the answers he expected. "He said I'll have to watch what I eat and exercise some," says Murphy. "I'm thinking about doing that."
Some people are seeing Russert's death as a reminder not just to take better care of their health, but to approach life a little more serenely. Richard Budden, the 61-year-old manager of a real estate office in Chestertown, Md., identifies with the broadcaster's breakneck work pace at NBC. "He worked really hard, and I do, too," says Budden. "Maybe I should take a deep breath. Maybe that third cup of coffee isn't such a great idea."
For Budden, who has a family history of heart disease and has high blood pressure and cholesterol, the health wakeup call already came years ago. He sees Russert's death as a somewhat different type of alarm.
"Wow, this isn't practice right now," he says he thought to himself recently. "This is real life. Better live it."