How Much Would a Heart Attack Cost You?

Last Updated Apr 23, 2010 10:29 AM EDT


My friend Chuck, a retirement planner, had a mild heart attack a few weekends ago. His experience has had a profound impact on his view of the rest of his life, so I asked him if I could share his insights with our readers. Here goes.

"I used to eat too much of the wrong things," Chuck told me, "too many greasy foods and too many sweets. I told people it was my 'cancer prevention' program. I figured I'd most likely die from either cancer or heart failure, and given a choice, I'd much rather die of heart failure. So eating heart-unhealthy foods was the best way to avoid dying from cancer. It was partly a joke, but mainly a weak excuse for not being disciplined about the bad foods I loved to eat.

"When I turned fifty and was already distinctly overweight, I decided I didn't need to keep fighting the battle--who was I trying to impress? So I showed even less restraint with my diet, and quickly gained another ten or fifteen pounds. But I realized that the heavier I got, the worse I felt, so for the past five or six years, I've been eating more moderately and getting more exercise. I've lost almost 40 pounds. But I've continued to avoid going to doctors or having routine diagnostic tests.

"Recently, after two hours of heavy yard work, I felt a tight spot in my chest, along with a few, milder symptoms. I suspected a heart attack but didn't really believe it. It wasn't until the next day, when some symptoms were persisting, that I even called my doctor, who told me to go right to the emergency room, where a heart attack was confirmed.

"The bad news is, since I didn't get to the hospital fast enough, there's permanent damage to the heart. But it's localized to the part of the heart that does the least work, and the tests showed my heart was still pumping at full strength. I need to go on some meds, but within two months, the doctor thinks I can be back at even the most vigorous physical tasks. I still need to make some permanent changes in my life, particularly my diet and exercise habits. Overall, I got off lucky."

Even though Chuck was lucky, he paid a big price for denial. First, by avoiding a healthy lifestyle for the past few decades, and second, by denying that it could be a serious event at the time of his heart attack. Let's do some math to estimate the price of denial of his unhealthy lifestyle.

According to an article from the National Business Group on Health, the average total cost of a severe heart attack--including direct and indirect costs--is about $1 million. Direct costs include charges for hospitals, doctors and prescription drugs, while the indirect costs include lost productivity and time away from work. The average cost of a less severe heart attack is about $760,000. Amortized over 20 years, that's $50,000 per year for a severe heart attack and $38,000 per year for a less severe heart attack.

You might argue that insurance will pay for a large part of the direct costs, but whatever assumptions you make about those costs, you're still looking at a high annual cost of denial. You might also argue that healthy food costs more than unhealthy food, but the difference can't possibly make up for the high cost of denial. And who can put a price on your health or a damaged heart?

"I'm glad to share my experience if it can help others," Chuck told me. "I learned this lesson the hard way--maybe others can learn it a little easier than I did."

If you've had a similar experience that can help our readers, I invite you to write a comment below. It might save some lives -- and at the very least, it might save some people a whole lot of money.
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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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