John Hughes' Heart Attack May Have Had No Warning

"We have to recognize that there is no need to take a doom and gloom approach here," Yancy said, noting the importance of awareness and education about good treatment options for people at all points of the risk spectrum.

"It's so evident that a lot of the risk is modifiable," he added. "For many people, the reason for hesitancy is fear, but that is not the case and there is a lot that can be done to mitigate risk and improve outcomes. After you get started, it all flows together."

Better screening and detection techniques for risk factors, such as imaging calcium deposits in blood vessels, could help head off heart problems before they begin. In addition, Yancy said genetic medicine holds huge promise to identify those at risk for atherosclerosis -- hardened arteries -- and other indicators of heart disease, which may help prevent fatal heart attacks and strokes.

But these techniques are many years away from common use. Significant lifestyle changes remain the best way to prevent heart disease and reduce the risk of sudden heart attack.

"This is a scary problem and it really is the way that the majority of people in this country die," Kopecky said. "We can't let ourselves get fooled into thinking you'll have some warning."

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