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Profiles in Heart Disease: David Letterman

By Maureen Salamon

Updated January 09, 2009

(LifeWire) - If late-night talk show host David Letterman were ever to write a Top-10 list of the reasons he needed coronary artery bypass surgery at age 52, chief among them would probably be that his father died of a heart attack at the same age.

Letterman was fortunate enough to escape his father's fate -- but not without intervention. Quintuple-bypass surgery performed in January 2000, after an angiogram showed a significant arterial blockage around his heart, put the comedic giant among the ranks of the roughly 260,000 Americans who undergo the lifesaving procedure every year. Letterman suffered no complications, spent several days in the hospital and returned to host the Late Show with David Letterman after a six-week recuperation.

Angiograms involve threading a catheter and injecting dye through the heart vessels to see blockages by x-ray, while bypass surgery re-routes blood flow through grafts, or replacement vessels, to bypass blocked vessels. Letterman had one upon the recommendation of his doctors, because of his family's history of heart disease. The main goal of bypass surgery is to prevent heart attacks, which strike 920,000 Americans annually, killing 157,000.

"In addition to re-routing the arteries," Letterman joked after surgery, "they also installed an EZ Pass." His first live show after returning featured eight members of the medical team that cared for Letterman during his hospital stay. The doctor who performed Letterman's surgery said he had "the heart muscle of a 20-year-old."

Letterman's father, Joe, died in 1973 when Dave was just 26. Letterman has also been known to enjoy cigars, another risk factor. He alluded to his ominous family history and high-cholesterol levels during a presurgical interview with Regis Philbin,  who underwent a successful emergency angioplasty to unclog cardiac arteries in 1993.

Letterman's rapid return to television life has been unmarred by further cardiac problems.


"At-a-Glance Summary Tables." americanheart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 5 Sep 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/downloadable/heart/1200078608862HS_Stats%202008.final.pdf>.

Brody, Jane E. "Personal Health: Cigar Smoking." nytimes.com. 29 May 1996. New York Times. 10 Dec 2008 <http://www.nytimes.com/specials/women/warchive/960529_1104.html>.

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

"Letterman Expected to Fully Recover From Heart Surgery." cnn.com. 15 Jan 2000. CNN. 10 Dec 2008 <http://edition.cnn.com/2000/SHOWBIZ/TV/01/15/letterman.heart/index.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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