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Susan Lucci's heart disease scare: How to prevent a heart attack

How is it possible for someone slim and fit to still end up with heart trouble?
/ Source: TODAY

One of the most striking aspects of Susan Lucci’s recent heart blockage scare is that, outwardly at least, she seemed to have none of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

The 72-year-old actress is slim, fit, active and follows the Mediterranean diet, which is famously good for the heart. During medical check-ups, every electrocardiogram (EKG) Lucci has had “was great” and her blood pressure was on the lower end of normal, she told People.

Yet, Lucci experienced chest tightness and shortness of breath that led to an emergency room visit last fall. Doctors discovered a 90 percent blockage in her heart’s main artery and a 70 percent blockage in another area. She received two stents to keep the blocked passageways open.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” she told People. “As a woman you think about breast cancer, not a heart attack.”

Susan Lucci
Susan Lucci showed off her slim figure during a recent photo shoot.Justice Apple / Harper's Bazaar

How is it possible for someone slim and fit to still end up with heart trouble?

First, it’s important to note Lucci had at least one strong risk factor after all — a family history of heart disease. Her father had arteriosclerosis and suffered a heart attack in his 40s, she said.

“Family history is a huge risk factor, especially if your parents or other first-degree relatives have had a heart attack or coronary artery disease at a young age like that,” Dr. Jennifer Haythe, co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Medical Center, told TODAY.

“If that was in my family history, I would be very proactive about getting screened, even in the absence of symptoms.”

Also, some men and women who have heart attacks or who are discovered to have plaque in their arteries just don’t have any of the common risk factors, or they have a low level of several risk factors, said Dr. Sharonne N. Hayes, founder of the Women's Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic.

“She’s a petite woman who looks very healthy and one lesson coming out of that is heart disease really doesn’t care what you wear and how you wear it. It can sneak up on you,” Hayes said.

Tests to screen for heart disease

Predicting a heart attack before it happens can be difficult. Almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk for heart disease, the agency warns.

So how do you protect yourself? Most importantly, be aware of your own risk factors and the warning signs of heart trouble.

There isn’t a “mammogram for the heart,” Hayes noted, or a routine screening that can give a people concrete answers about their heart disease risk, the way a mammogram can reveal early signs of breast cancer.

But certain tests can offer more clues. There’s no harm in asking your doctor about them, though getting your health insurance to approve them “can be tricky,” Haythe said.

Exercise stress test: You’ll walk increasingly faster on a treadmill while hooked up to equipment to monitor the heart. This test can show if the blood supply to the coronary arteries is reduced when your body works harder.

Coronary calcium score: a non-invasive test that gives an estimate of how much calcified plaque is in the walls of the coronary arteries.

A CT coronary angiogram: a bit more invasive, this test allows doctors to look for blood flow through coronary arteries with the help of dye injected through an IV in your arm.

Your results on any of these tests will determine how often you need to repeat them or if any treatment is necessary.

“We’re trying to make women aware that these things exist and they should ask questions,” Haythe said. “It’s always good for women to be proactive about their own health.”

Hayes applauded Lucci for going public with her story and for urging women to pay attention to symptoms even if they enjoy a very healthy lifestyle.

“The fact that Susan Lucci has come forward is fabulous. There’s still a stigma for having heart disease because people shame and blame: ‘Oh, you must have smoked,’ or ‘You must not have taken care of yourself,’” Hayes said. “So hats off to her.”