Russert's 'Silent' Heart Problem Common in U.S.

Russert's death may be a wake-up call for many with health issues.

ByABC News
June 16, 2008, 11:49 AM

June 16, 2008— -- The death of Tim Russert, a robust man who was only 58, was shocking to so many not only because of his celebrity but because he had few outward signs that he was in danger.

Russert, according to his doctor, had heart disease and was overweight. The massive attack that felled the popular political analyst as he working in NBC's Washington bureau last Friday is a grim reminder that the first signs of heart disease should not be ignored because they can be fatal.

The catastrophic medical event that killed Russert is called sudden cardiac death, a change to the heart that can come on with or without a heart attack.

Russert's physician, Michael Newman, told NBC News that plaque from a clogged artery ruptured, traveled to his heart and blocked it. The result is a quickly cascading chain of events that Russert may not have even felt coming.

Mandeep Mehra, chief of cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, explains that the blockage likely disrupted the rhythm of Russert's heartbeat, sending it into a state called ventricular fibrillation, where electrical signals get confused in the heart and cause it to beat hundreds of times per minute.

"It's such a high heart rate that the heart just starts to quiver and it's unable to pump blood," said Mehra, "You won't be able to pump blood to the brain and you won't be able to pump blood to the rest of the body."

The condition typically causes death in between three and seven minutes, according to Dr. Douglas P. Zipes, director emeritus of the division of cardiology at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, and former president of the American College of Cardiology.