Q: Tim Russert's surprising death has caused me to think more about my health than I have in ages.  I exercise, follow a healthy diet, and monitor my cholesterol levels--but I'm not getting any younger. As a 60 year old man, are there any additional preventative measures that I can take to ensure that the same thing doesn't happen to me?

A: Tim Russert's passing has caused a lot of people to stop and think about their health in ways that they previously may have ignored. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with over 600,000 coronary heart disease (CHD) deaths occurring annually. Stroke, another form of cardiovascular disease, is the third leading cause of death, which is causing a lot of concern to millions of people across the country.

There are several factors that raise a person's risk of a heart attack and stroke, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, smoking, and physical inactivity.  The more risk factors a patient has, the greater his or her risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Some risk factors--such as increasing age, family history, and gender--are inherent and can not be changed; however, there are several risk factors that can be addressed with medications and lifestyle changes, such as exercise and diet.

Many people mistakenly believe that heart attacks occur as a result of clogged arteries or plaque buildup (stenosis), when in reality, nearly 68 percent of all coronary events are caused by plaque rupture and thrombosis.  Thrombosis occurs when unstable plaque enters the blood stream and causes blood clots that block the coronary or carotid arteries, ultimately resulting in a heart attack or stroke.

Fortunately, there is a simple new blood test that goes beyond traditional risk factors to help identify patients at increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The PLAC® Test is the only FDA-cleared blood test that aids in assessing risk for both CHD and ischemic stroke associated with atherosclerosis. The PLAC Test measures levels of the risk marker lipoprotein-associated phospholipase A2 (Lp-PLA2), a cardiovascular-specific inflammatory enzyme implicated in the formation of vulnerable, rupture-prone plaque. Used in conjunction with the clinical evaluation of traditional risk factors, the PLAC Test helps identify people who may not be identified by traditional risk factors and who may benefit from more aggressive treatment programs.

Although risk factor identification remains one of the most important approaches to preventing cardiovascular disease, traditional factors fail to identify many people at risk. In fact, approximately 50 percent of all coronary events strike people with low-to-moderate cholesterol levels, and about 20 percent occur in individuals with none of the four major risk factors (high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, or diabetes). Therefore, hidden or additional cardiovascular risk factors are likely to be common and there is a critical need to identify all patients at-risk.

It's important to talk to you physician to determine your risks. For more information on the PLAC Test visit www.plactest.com.

Dr. Mark Alberts is a professor of neurology at Northwestern University Medical School and the Director of the Stroke Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.