Watchdog Blog

George Lardner Jr.: Why Don’t We Know More About What Killed Tim Russert?

Posted at 2:24 pm, June 17th, 2008
George Lardner Mug

Maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve got some plaque in my arteries, too, but Tim Russert’s tragic and untimely death at age 58 raises some unsettling questions that it seems to me the media should be exploring.

The first is: Why should we have any confidence in our health care system? Isn’t it time to lay to rest the propaganda that it’s the best in the world? Doesn’t the public need to know above all that “medical science” involves too much guesswork to be called a real science?

Tim Russert seems to have had what most of us would deem excellent health care. But that’s just the point. His internist told MSNBC that he had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, but it was controlled with medication and exercise. Russert even did well on a stress test he took in late April.

And now he’s dead. An autopsy showed that the famous NBC commentator had an enlarged heart and that coronary plaque ruptured an artery, causing coronary thrombosis. There is something wrong with this picture. The media should dig into it and not just shrug and say, well, that’s the way it goes sometimes. The annual death rate in the United States, 8.27 per thousand, puts it at No. 105 out of 223 countries, not quite as good as Cambodia (8.16 per 1,000) or Bangladesh (8.00 per thousand ) and far worse than the United Arab Emirates (2.13 per thousand). Average life expectancy here is 78.14 years, making the U.S. No. 47, behind most European countries and far behind the best of the lot, Andorra (83.53 years). Why aren’t we getting more for our money?

In Russsert’s case, it’s quite likely that a fatal bit of plaque broke loose and led to his death. The Wall Street Journal’s Melinda Beck had an excellent article in Tuesday’s edition , pointing out how this can happen “despite all the advances doctors have made in understanding risk factors, lowering cholesterol with statins and propping open narrowed arteries with stents.” Some bloggers have contended Russert should have had an angiogram — a harsh test that sends dye into the coronary arteries so that X-rays can spot blockages — but, as Beck pointed out, he could have had the test an hour before his attack and doctors might not have seen any cause for alarm. The fact is that even moderate amounts of plaque can be dangerous and scientists still don’t know what causes those bits to break off and rupture. No doubt they’re trying to find out but how far they are from the answers and what research funds are available for the effort remain far below the public’s radar screen. We should be reading and hearing more about that than the trivia served up to us each day under the guise of news that we need to know.

6 Responses to “Why Don’t We Know More About What Killed Tim Russert?”

  1. a. torrance says:

    More attention should be paid to the long flight from Italy. The airlines are under pressurizing the cabin area. Sometimes pressure as low as 10,000 feet. Passengers fly and 24-48 hours later suffer strokes and heart attacks without anyone making the connection. Google has numerous medical articles warning about flying in under pressurized cabin areas.

  2. Richard Michem says:

    If Tim, was just a ordinary, barber,cook, or dishwasher, would anybody care? More people in this country are dying, of heart disease, not because they were not treat right by doctors, it is because they can not AFFORD treatment by a doctor! That the heart problems, you should be talking about.

  3. Janice Huth Byer says:

    Same as Mr. Russert, my husband died of a first heart attack. Although he was physically fit and only 44, his being barrel-chested, I was told, was possibly the cause of his not responding to repeated attempts to resuscitate. That was 1998. I do hope Mr. Russert didn’t fail to resuscitate owing to the same cause. But, like Mr. Lardner, I see no reason to be confident advances have been made.

  4. Thomas says:

    Everything that’s wrong with journalism, all summed up in one post. Congratulations.

  5. Elizabeth O'Nan says:

    A parallel exits between having a high death rate and having a high level of toxic products and pollution. The news media and indeed environmental groups as well fail to recognize the linkage between a toxic environment and chronic health problems/high death rate. We should be getting off oil for the simple reason that it poisons us and most of the worst chemicals are made from…oil. The simplest thing we could to to increase health and lower health costs would be to ban pesticides, fluoride in drinking water, and nuclear testing, power, and revise RCRA so that radiation and other toxic waste can not be recycled into anything. As it is this law saves the poison pushers bundles, but does nothing to protect the public.

  6. Elizabeth O'Nan says:


    Date: 020729


    By Maggie Fox, July 29, 2002

    Air pollution worsens heart disease by cutting off circulation to the heart, Finnish researchers reported Monday in a study that helps explain why polluted environments aggravate not only asthma but heart conditions.

    The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 60,000
    people a year die in the United States alone from particulate air pollution – the kind caused when small particles of smoke pervade the air.

    Dr. Juha Pekkanen of the National Public Health Institute in
    Kuopio,Finland, and colleagues looked specifically at pollution coming from factory smokestacks and the tailpipes of some diesel-powered buses and trucks.


    Heart disease patients exposed to such pollution were about three times more likely to have ischemia – decreased blood flow to the heart- while exercising after being exposed to such pollution, as compared with when they exercised after breathing in cleaner air, they reported.

    Writing in this week’s online issue of Circulation, published by the American Heart Association, the researchers said they could measure clear changes in oxygen supply to the heart using

    They studied 45 heart disease patients, nearly half of them
    women, all living within an area in Helsinki where air pollution could be easily measured.

    Twice a week for six weeks the researchers gave the volunteers
    an exercise test, and charted their findings against readings of
    extremely fine particles in the air locally.

    Two days after breathing in polluted air, the volunteers had
    “significantly elevated” levels of ischemia, Pekkanen and
    colleagues wrote.

    Ischemia is often painless, but is a sign of serious heart disease. The pollution may either be helping clumps of artery-clogging plaque break off – causing heart attacks and strokes –
    - – or it could be
    dangerous heart rhythms, or both, the researchers said.

    Heart rate also increased after exposure to pollution – from an
    average of 61 beats per minute to 90.


    The study helps explain why pollution can affect heart disease, Dr.
    Murray Mittleman, director of cardiovascular epidemiology at
    University and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston,
    colleagues said in a commentary.

    Mittleman and colleagues cited studies that showed health risks
    particle-containing air pollution were notable not only in the
    expected cities, such as Los Angeles and Houston, but in “cities
    are considered to have relatively clean air, such as Boston, Seattle
    and Minneapolis.”

    Researchers reported in Circulation earlier this year that fine
    particles, when inhaled, can stay in the system for hours, traveling
    in the blood to various organs.

    Those particles can disrupt the heart’s activity, interfering with its
    rhythm and tightening arteries.

    “The problem with particulate air pollution is pervasive and
    growing,” they wrote. Mittleman said that on days when pollution
    levels were high, many people would be better off exercising
    indoors -
    something many authorities already recommend in daily air quality

    Mittleman noted a number of holes in the study. For one, the
    study was supposed to include volunteers in Germany and the
    Netherlands, but not enough of those patients had enough
    ischemia to be used in the study.

    * * *

    (c) 2002 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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