Actor Alan Thicke, dead at 69. Singer George Michael, dead at 53. Actor Carrie Fisher (right), dead at 60. All three celebrities were felled by cardiovascular catastrophes, a reminder that heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of men and women.
The reminder is especially relevant at this time of year. Heart-related deaths spike around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, because of overeating, overdrinking, stressful travel, family tensions and a propensity to willfully ignore symptoms so as not to ruin the festivities.
“These are three kinds of cardiovascular diseases that result in devastating loss,” said Vincent Figueredo, MD, Associate Chair of Medicine and Chief of Clinical Cardiology at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. “High blood pressure is a common denominator in all of them,” he said, speaking generally, without direct knowledge of the medical history or health status of the three stars.
“The fact is that most men and women die of cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Figueredo (left) said. “I think it’s pretty well recognized that heart disease is the major killer of men, but not so women. When we think of causes of death in women, we think of cancer. But if we take all the cancers combined, more women die of cardiovascular disease.”
Thicke died of a ruptured aorta and an aortic dissection while he was playing hockey with his son, after appearing to be the “picture of health,” as described by a friend who saw him recently. Aortic dissection is relatively rare, and occurs in older patients, unless there’s a genetic cause. “Dissection results either from blood pressure being dangerously high, or an aneurysm forming that gets large enough and ruptures,” Dr. Figueredo said.
Carrie Fisher died of cardiac arrest, in which her heart suddenly stopped. Dr. Figueredo acknowledged that she was young for that outcome, “unless she was a smoker, or a diabetic or had a family history of early coronary artery disease.”
George Michael died of heart failure, a chronic condition in which the heart doesn’t pump adequately. Heart failure is a major cause of death, and the leading cause of hospitalization among people 65 years old and older.
Dr. Figueredo said an underlying cause of heart disease is high blood pressure. Getting blood pressure checked and keeping it well controlled with medication, diet and exercise, is critical to minimizing risks of heart attacks, heart failure and aortic dissection.
People should be vigilant about their heart disease risks, and consult their doctors about diagnosis and prevention. “Also, people should pay attention to symptoms that could signal a dangerous condition—chest pain or discomfort, palpitations, dizziness, leg swelling—all are warning signs,” Dr. Figueredo said.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the world and the leading cause of death in the United States, killing over 370,000 Americans a year. Heart disease accounts for one in seven deaths in the U.S.