The legendary talk-show host is helping raise awareness about heart health and the importance of staying on drug treatment.
Regis Philbin has been entertaining us for more than 50 years — from his legendary morning show with Kathie Lee Gifford and Kelly Ripa to . With his carefree personality and love of the sharp, off-the-cuff one-liner, at age 86 he remains one of America’s favorite television personalities. Seemingly forever young, he got a wake-up call in 1992, when he faced a major health scare that spurred him to lead a more .
Philbin was away from the TV studio and on a trip in Florida when he started to experience sharp chest pains.
“My heart was driving me crazy, I couldn’t believe it, I had these chest pains,” Philbin says. “We did an down there in Florida and my doctor told me my cholesterol levels were at 300. Are you kidding me? Three hundred!”
High blood cholesterol is one of the major markers of heart disease. According to the , a healthy total cholesterol level is less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Any levels at 240 mg/dL or above — like the levels Philbin had — would be considered significantly high.
Once Philbin was back in New York, his doctor put him on his first , and Philbin, with his wife, Joy, by his side, decided that he would make significant to fight off the progression of his heart disease.
“I think things changed in a hurry,” Philbin says about his approach to his health.
“It shook us both up, it was a wake-up call,” Joy recalls of her husband’s health scare. “Quite frankly, I didn’t give cholesterol a thought myself. I mean, Regis didn’t have the best diet, but I never thought it was that bad. It kind of set him on a new regimen. You really start to feel your mortality. He was only 61 when he had his first event.”
This wouldn’t be his only heart health scare. Philbin had triple bypass surgery in 2007 because of a buildup of .
The ‘Take the Cholesterol to Heart’ Campaign
Right now, the Philbins are raising awareness about heart health through the “” campaign, which they launched in October 2017 in cooperation with Kowa Pharmaceuticals and the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation. The campaign aims to encourage people to remain on a heart-healthy routine while also seeking out better information and asking questions before considering stopping their . Philbin, who has shared almost everything about his life over decades of being on air, has always been very open about his experiences with and was approached by the campaign to be its public face.
Joy says that what was most stunning to her about being part of the campaign was learning that 50 percent of people who are on statins stop taking the drugs after one year of use. She adds this shocked her because of how helpful the drugs were for her husband’s health.
Statins are drugs that lower blood cholesterol levels by blocking an enzyme that produces cholesterol in the liver. Getting people to maintain their drug regimen is one of the big challenges of treating high cholesterol, says , the president of the Utah Lipid Center and a fellow at the American Heart Association and the National Lipid Association.
“The big question is, why do these people stop taking their statins? One issue is you don’t necessarily feel better or worse when you take a statin; you have to go through testing to know your cholesterol is lower, so you don’t necessarily have a daily reminder every morning telling you you’re getting better,” Brinton says. “Another thing is that some patients will experience , like muscle pain or weakness. They might have stomach pain or a skin rash.
"There’s also a lot of negative and sometimes factually inaccurate information on the web. However, reputable medical sites cite evidence that highlight the positive health benefits of statins and show that these side effects do not occur in anywhere near the high numbers some of these other sites might lead you to believe.”
Reasons to Stay on Your Statins
A looked into the effectiveness of both statin and non-statin therapies for lowering cholesterol. The study reviewed 49 trials from 1966 to 2016 that involved 312,175 people in total. The report’s authors assert that statins should remain at the front of the line in treating cholesterol, but alternative therapies could be just as helpful if a person can’t tolerate statins or is looking for a different source of treatment. These could involve bile acid sequestrants or even a simple .
“I’ll say this up front, . They prevent heart attack and can prevent stroke. But a statin can’t work if you don’t take it,” Brinton stresses.
Brinton says there are a few things people should keep in mind when looking to lower their cholesterol with statin treatment:
Stay informed. To help counter some potentially inaccurate information out there, Brinton says the first person to turn to is your doctor. Beyond that, he says there’s useful information at places like the , the American Heart Association, and the National Lipid Association website, .
Know your options. Brinton says that people who are discouraged by one drug should know that there are multiple statin drugs out there. “A lot of people who stop their statin for whatever reason didn’t talk to or consult their doctor, who then doesn’t have a chance of helping them decide what to do,” he adds. “There are several statins out there, and people need to realize that there are other options if what they try first doesn’t work out.”
Be vigilant. If you’re having a bad experience, your statin medication could be reacting with other medications you are taking. Brinton says it is important that people tell their doctor about other medications or supplements they're on. They could then be prescribed a different statin.
How Regis Stays Healthy in Retirement
This all rings true for the Philbins. After his scare in the early '90s, Philbin started seeing a cardiologist, , and became even more of a “fitness freak,” Joy says.
“When you’re in your thirties, for example, you aren’t running to a doctor. But when you hit your sixties, you become a little more proactive about your health,” Joy says. “If your diet is wrong, you start looking into it. You become more aware.”
Echoing Brinton, Joy says that communication between you and your doctor is key in maintaining the best possible heart health.
“Some people avoid going to the doctor; they’re afraid of bad news,” she adds. “It’s important to maintain that [relationship]. You get closer to your doctor as you age, it’s one of the things you do. That’s crucial. It was so important for Regis.”
For his part, Philbin is doing everything he can to stay healthy in retirement. The talk-show host with the gift of gab is more than happy to share his heart health journey.
“I’ve been dealing with this for 25 years. It’s been a long time,” Philbin says. “I'm always more than happy to talk about this. For me, it’s everything.”