While campaigning in Las Vegas on Tuesday of last week, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders began experiencing tightness in his chest. He was rushed to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a heart attack and had two stents implanted to open blocked arteries.
Little to nothing beyond these bare details of his health condition is known but, as Politico put it, this event has “cast a cloud over his candidacy.”
Is it appropriate for voters to lose confidence in Sanders at this point? He was already the oldest candidate in the race at age 78 years. Would he survive a 4 year term in the grueling position of head of the free world?
An American Federation of Aging white paper, Longevity and Health of U.S. Presidential Candidates for the 2020 Election, used data from national vital statistics to estimate lifespan, healthspan (years of healthy living), disabled lifespan, and four- and eight-year survival probabilities for U.S. citizens with attributes matching those of the 27 then candidates for Presidency.
Given the favorable health and longevity trajectories of almost all of the presidential candidates relative to the average member of the same age and gender group in the U.S., and the apparent current good health of all of the candidates, there is reason to question whether age should be used at all in making judgments about prospective presidential candidates
I would agree that individual health is more important than chronological age in evaluating longevity and in Sanders’ case the heart attack may be an indicator of a poor prognosis and an inability to withstand the rigors of campaigning for and serving as president.
Unfortunately we need to know a lot more about Sanders’ heart attack and overall health to make this determination.
Big Heart Attack Or Little Heart Attack?
A heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI) occurs when heart muscle does not get enough blood/oxygen to keep the myocardial cells alive. This typically is due to a tight blockage in one of the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart, thus constricting the blood flow to a segment of heart muscle (myocardium).
The size of Sanders’ heart attack is an important determinant of his prognosis. The more myocardial cells that died the larger the damage. We can detect and quantify heart attacks with a blood test using a cardiac specific protein called troponin.
Some heart attacks are tiny and only detected by very slight increases in the troponin in the blood whereas larger ones result in large increases in the troponin. What kind did Sanders have?
The more damage to the main pumping chamber of the heart, the left ventricle, the weaker the pumping action as measured by the ejection fraction. The lower the ejection fraction the more likely the development of heart failure. What is Sanders ejection fraction? Does he have any evidence of heart failure?
Stunned or Hibernating Myocardium?
With some heart attacks the heart muscle doesn’t die but becomes stunned-weakened but still living. Under other circumstances a tightly blocked coronary artery doesn’t cause a heart attack but the reduced oxygen supply causes the muscle to stop working-in effect hibernating. Thus, 3 months from now Sanders’ heart muscle function may improve as these stunned or hibernating myocardial cells come back to full function. What will Sanders’ ejection fraction be 3 months from now.? Will he have evidence of heart failure at that time?
Troponin levels and EF are just two of many factors that will determine Sanders’ prognosis.
A recent review of such factors on the one year post MI prognosis concluded
Secular trends showed a consistent decrease in mortality and morbidity after acute MI from early to more recent study periods. The relative risk for all-cause death and cardiovascular outcomes (recurrent MI, cardiovascular death) was at least 30% higher than that in a general reference population at both 1–3 years and 3–5 years after MI. Risk factors leading to worse outcomes after MI included comorbid diabetes, hypertension and peripheral artery disease, older age, reduced renal function, and history of stroke.
Hopefully, prior to the Iowa caucases all the candidates will release their medical records for the public to review. Only by learning more details about Senator Sanders’ heart attack and his overall medical condition can we answer whether he is fit to serve as President. Similarly, heretofore unknown individual health conditions could markedly effect the prognosis of any of the other candidates and their medical records should be equally scrutinized.