Locals still leery of using the best tool for a healthy heart
Aspen’s aging baby boomers are doing everything right to fight heart disease – except embracing the one tool that helps the most, according to the town’s new cardiologist.
Nearly four months after joining the Aspen Valley Hospital staff, Dr. Gordon Gerson remains confounded by Aspenites’ resistance to taking cholesterol-lowering drugs.
“People are willing to buy anything over the counter as long as it’s something they’ve read about somewhere or some friend told them that it will be good for them,” said Gerson. “But if I want to give them a cholesterol-lowering medicine that is proven to cut the risk of a heart attack by 30 to 40 percent, they tend to be resistant to wanting to take it.”
The perfect solution may be referring to the drugs as vitamins. “Then everybody will want to take them,” he joked.
Resistance to drugs aside, Gerson said his local patients tend to fit the profile that he anticipated when he accepted the position in Aspen – they exercise more than the U.S. population as a whole, they smoke less and their diets are generally acceptable.
Fear, he said, has apparently been a huge motivator for local heart health. There have been some high-profile heart-attack deaths of baby boomers who seemed physically fit. Two cases involved men who were avid cyclists.
“There are a certain number of individuals who have dropped dead in this community over the past couple of years that everyone who walks through my door can recite the story,” Gerson said. “They don’t want the next one to be them.”
He doesn’t want that to happen, either. But there is no magic wand he can wave to assure health. Genetics play a huge role in determining who gets coronary disease.
“Just because you exercise a lot and you’ve got great lipid profile doesn’t prevent you from getting coronary disease,” said Gerson. “That’s one of the big messages I’m trying to send to the community because there is a profound interest here in trying to prevent coronary disease.”
The risk of genetic predisposition has made the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs even more important. The 38-year-old Gerson said he worked almost exclusively on improving diets when he first started practice 13 years ago.
Even the best patients could log only minor improvements on lipid profiles – tests of “good” and “bad” cholesterol as well as triglycerides – through improved diet and exercise.
Since then new medications have been developed that “reduce the risk of cardiac events by 30 to 40 percent.” Gerson said he now views aggressive use of medication as the definitive treatment in his field, so the resistance to their use in Aspen caught him off guard.
He was also taken aback by another discovery.
“Just about every patient I talked to that was here in the ’70s used cocaine,” Gerson said. “I’m pleased to say that number has markedly decreased, although it’s not zero.
“Cocaine can kill you on the spot. The fact that anybody would put that stuff in their body based on what we know is so inexplicable to me.”
Gerson took a second self-described step onto the soapbox to take a shot at smoking.
“In a town like this I can’t believe it’s allowed in any public places,” he said. The doctor may become an activist on that issue when time permits.
He noted that smoking a pack of cigarettes per day lowers life expectancy by eight years. He couldn’t help but chuckle about smokers who light up a final rod to calm their nerves before boarding an airplane.
“They ought to fly on an airplane to get the courage to smoke that cigarette,” he said.
Gerson, an ultra-marathoner who serves on the USA Triathlon medical staff, has wasted no time adapting to the Aspen fitness routine after moving here from Dayton, Ohio. He walks up the ski areas, cross-country and downhill skis and plays hockey.
Gerson moved here with his wife, Elaine, and their two daughters. He took over for Dr. Morris Cohen, who retired.
Gerson said his professional goal is to develop Aspen into a national destination known for its preventative cardio care.
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