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Profiles in Heart Disease: Bill Clinton

By Maureen Salamon

Updated January 09, 2009

(LifeWire) - Former President Bill Clinton joined the roughly 260,000 Americans undergoing coronary bypass surgery every year when a combination of genetics and poor diet caught up with him in 2004, requiring open-heart surgery to ward off a potential heart attack.

Clinton, then 58, had experienced prolonged chest pains and shortness of breath, prompting an angiogram that found that several coronary arteries were more than 90% blocked. Angiograms involve threading a catheter and injecting dye through the heart vessels to see blockages by x-ray, a procedure Clinton credited with saving his life in an interview with CNN's Larry King.

Clinton's diagnostic angiogram led within days to quadruple-bypass surgery, which re-routes blood flow through grafts, or replacement vessels, bypassing blocked vessels. The main goal of bypass is preventing heart attacks. About 920,000 occur in the U.S. annually, killing 157,000.

"If people have a family history there, and high cholesterol and high blood pressure," the two-term Democratic president said a few weeks after his bypass, "they ought to consider an evaluation."

In addition to having all three of those major risk factors for heart disease, Clinton had a well-known penchant during his presidency for eating fast food and smoking cigars, two other predisposing factors. When he left office in January 2001, Clinton's level of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol - the so-called "bad" type - was 177, about 100 points higher than recommended.

After Clinton's bypass surgery in fall 2004, hospitals nationwide saw a surge of anxious midlife men having their cardiac health checked, a phenomenon dubbed the "Clinton Syndrome." Many paid hundreds of dollars for non-invasive CT (computer tomography) scans that can detect blockages in coronary blood vessels. (If significant blockages are found, however, patients typically then require angiograms.)

Clinton's eventual return to vigorous health and public life was marked by a follow-up surgery, called "decortication," in March 2005 to remove residual scar tissue and fluid from his chest cavity resulting from the bypass surgery. Doctors said they would continue to monitor his medication, diet and exercise levels indefinitely.


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"'Clinton Syndrome' Sends Men Rushing to Doctors." msn.com. 27 Sep 2004. MSNBC. 9 Dec 2008 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5963026/>.

  "Coronary Artery Bypass Graft Surgery." stanfordhospital.com. 2008. Stanford Hospital & Clinics. 31 Aug 2008 <http://www.stanfordhospital.com/healthLib/greystone/heartCenter/heartProcedures/coronaryArteryBypassGraftSurgery>.

  Gupta, Sanjay. "Bill Clinton's Big Test." time.com. 20 Sep 2004. Time Magazine. 9 Dec 2008 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,995165,00.html>.

  Nichols, Bill. "Bill Clinton Bypass Surgery Successful." usatoday.com. 5 Sep 2004. USA Today. 9 Dec 2008 <http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-09-05-clinton-bypass_x.htm>.

  "The Pulse of the Western States." americanheart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 9 Dec 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3029457>.

  Vedantam, Shankar. "Clinton Awaits Heart Bypass Surgery." washingtonpost.com. 6 Sep 2004. Washington Post. 9 Dec 2008 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A64384-2004Sep5.html>.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications.

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