The Nation's Health + [life]

Annual physical

A judge who lives in my neighborhood was found dead in his bed this week from a heart attack. He was 49 years old. His teenage kids found him and performed CPR, but he was cold and long-gone by then.

A close friend of the judge told me that he'd passed an annual physical just weeks before.

This sort of tragedy shouldn't happen. It is easily--easily --preventable. Had this man undergone a heart scan, a score of at least 400 if not >1000 would have been uncovered, and appropriate preventive action could have been taken. The conversation could have centered around the strategies to correct the patterns that triggered his plaque and how he could reduce his score.

Of course, hospitals make use of stories like this to fuel fear that brings hordes to their wards for procedures. Would the judge have required a procedure to save his life, had his heart disease been diagnosed at his annual physical? Not necessarily. Hospitals and cardiologists would try to persuade you that procedures have an impact on mortality. This is simply not true. In fact, the mortality benefits of procedures are questionable except in the midst of acute illness (e.g., unstable chest pain symptoms or heart attack).

Don't be falsely reassured by passing a physical. A physical does nothing to screen you for heart disease. An EKG and stress test, if included, is a lame excuse for heart disease screening. Remember that a stress test is a test of coronary blood flow, not for the presence of coronary plaque. The unfortunate judge most likely had a 30% "blockage" that did not block flow, but ruptured and closed an artery off sometime in the night when he died. A stress test even on the day of his death would not have predicted this.

A CT heart scan would have uncovered it easily, unequivocally, safely.