The commercial television spots are meant to be humorous, while at the same time containing a serious message. Announcing what sound like sports highlights, each is instead an update on a different health symptom, or check. One highlight is a “report” on some person’s high blood pressure, the others talk about different measures — and the closing comment asks the question goes something like, “what if we paid as much attention to our health statistics as we do sports?” The message is that men need to have regular checkups and know what’s going on with their bodies. The message hits home because regular health checks are something that most of us would acknowledge we avoid the best we can.

When the news of Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert’s death of an apparent heart attack hit last week, it sent a reminder about how fragile life can be, and that health-related killers are silent, and can strike at any time. Russert knew about his high cholesterol and potential heart complications that could lead to, and doctors say he was treating them with medication and exercise. He’d passed a stress test as recently as April, it’s been reported. While at work last Friday, though, he suffered what’s been reported to have been a fatal heart attack. Russert’s physician said cholesterol plaque ruptured in an artery, causing sudden coronary thrombosis.

More deaths are caused by sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) than by breast cancer, lung cancer, stroke and AIDS combined. Each day approximately 850 lives are lost to SCA by a situation that doesn’t have a clear cut pattern among men, although it’s believed to be related to both genes and lifestyle. Age, gender, family history, smoking, diabetes and obesity can all play a role as well. There is disagreement about whether stress plays a role in sudden cardiac arrest — or what role it plays. In other words, like so many medical conditions, there are a lot of unknowns.

What there is agreement on is that there are clear and proven steps that one can take to lower the risk of sudden cardiac death — eating healthy, getting exercise and not smoking. Many men don’t feel like they’re at risk, though, and don’t act until they actually experience a heart attack. The problem with that is that about a third of the time a deadly heart attack is the first sign that anything major is wrong.

That is why men, and women, must work with their health care provider to make sure that they are receiving annual checkups and age-appropriate tests. Some of those tests require working with a professional, but certain measures like Body Mass Index (BMI) can provide a starting point and offer indications that a problem may exist. It doesn’t require a doctor’s visit, and information about what a healthy weight/range should be are readily available. As we get older, unfortunately the list of suggested tests begins to grow — and those do require medical professionals. Those additional tests are important because as we age, the affects of our ongoing lifestyle begin to take their toll and other conditions begin to surface.

There are numerous resources that provide suggestions for not only living a more healthy lifestyle, but also for conditions we should be working with a healthcare provider to assess. Even those resources, no matter how reliable and proven, are just one part of the process, though. Working closely with a health care provider, and answering their questions honestly and accurately, is another critical step. Perhaps the most important, though, is to take care of ourselves in the first place.

Even if we know our numbers — cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. — many of us will not track them with the same attention we do our favorite player’s batting average or team’s winning percentage. Tragic, high-profile cases like Russert’s should at least remind us of how important it can be to change our priorities, though.

Bill Crist is associate publisher and general manager of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at