Super Bowl–winning quarterback Kurt Warner was busy throwing bombs for the Arizona Cardinals when his annual physical stopped him in his tracks: He'd been diagnosed with high cholesterol. Warner was shocked. "I was in my mid-30s and in the best shape of my life," he remembers. "I looked at it like, 'What's wrong with me? I'm doing everything I can to be healthy, so how can my cholesterol be high?'" Warner could shrug off a sack, but there was nothing he could do about his genetics. He had to confront the problem.
"My dad had high cholesterol," he says. "But he didn't exercise much and ate a poor diet, so I always thought that was why. I hadn't realized that for a large contingent of people with high cholesterol, a big piece of it is hereditary."
At first, Warner reacted by tweaking his diet, incorporating more fruits and vegetables and "catering to all the myths and theories about how to lower cholesterol." His test results didn't change. Frustrated, he started taking a statin, the most commonly prescribed class of cholesterol-lowering drugs. The pills worked and his cholesterol came down, but the swelling in his knees went up, a professional liability his doctor identified as a side effect.
"I had thought statins were all the same and didn't know you could switch," he says. "But I learned that they all work differently and have different side effects and interactions with foods and other drugs, so you shouldn't give up on them until you find the one that works for you." Research shows that roughly 75 percent of statin users quit them within a year, oftentimes because of unwanted side effects.
After some more trial and error, Warner found success with Livalo, a statin that worked so well for him that he didn't notice any side effects. The quarterback felt better, but he knew that he'd gotten lucky. Unlike many men, he'd known beyond a shadow of a doubt that his high cholesterol was hereditary. He had no reason to second guess the diagnosis given his incredibly rigorous workout schedule.
"If I had high cholesterol with the way I was eating and working out, I knew it must be widespread problem," says Warner, who has just launched FirstandGoalHeartHealth.com, a site that creates personalized treatment plans and tracks medication reactions. "We want to encourage people, regardless of how they feel, to just start the process of taking control of heart health. Start the conversation with your doctor, get your cholesterol tested, and if it's high, make a game plan to knock it back down."
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, about 71 million Americans have high cholesterol, yet only one in three has the condition under control. Warner wants to see those numbers change, which means encouraging men to start exercising or engaging in a more open dialogue with their physicians. When it comes to heart health, doctors may be coaches but patients need to know how to execute the next play.