58 year old NBC newscaster Tim Russert, one of America's most familiar and popular TV faces, whose death on Friday shocked the nation, suffered a sudden coronary thrombosis, a particular type of heart attack that in Russert's case was caused by cholesterol plaque rupturing in an artery, said his doctors.

Russert, who was NBC News' Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, the show that became known as the "Tim Russert Test" for politicians, was working at the bureau recording voiceovers for a weekend program when he collapsed. He was rushed to Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, but they could not resuscitate him.

His death was announced later on Friday afternoon by former anchor of NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw, who lauded Russert as "one of the premier political journalists and analysts of his time".

Tributes have poured in from all over America and around the globe, acknowledging the contribution that Russert made to American politics. In 2008, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

President Bush interrupted a news conference in Paris at the weekend to pay tribute to the news giant, describing him as "an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades." He said:

"Tim Russert loved his country, he loved his family and he loved his job a lot and we're going to miss him".

Russert's doctor, Michael Newman, told NBC News that the newscaster knew he had heart problems but he was managing the risks with medication and exercise. He had even used a treadmill on the morning of his death, according to a report on Eonline.

Russert, who had performed well on a stress test at the end of April, had already been diagnosed with asymptomatic coronary artery disease, which resulted in hardening of his coronary arteries, said Newman.

Newman said that even at a high level of exercise Russert showed no symptoms, and that his blood pressure and cholesterol were being well controlled.

The autopsy revealed that the fatal heart attack was the result of a fresh clot that had ruptured in his left anterior descending coronary artery. The autopsy also found that Russert had an enlarged heart.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), some heart attacks are sudden and intense, like the well known movie scene where a person collapses clutching their chest and everyone knows what is happening. But in most cases, the attack comes on slowly, with only mild pain or discomfort, and often people aren't sure what is wrong and they wait too long before doing something about it.

The symptoms of a heart attack often include: Chest discomfort: usually in the middle of the chest, lasts several minutes, or goes away and comes back. Feels like a squeezing, tightening pressure, fullness or pain.
Discomfort elsewhere in the upper body: can include pain in one or both arms, the back, the neck, jaw or stomach.
Shortness of breath: this can be with or without chest discomfort.
Other signs: breaking into a cold sweat, nausea, feeling lightheaded. Women may have different symptoms to men. Both men and women may feel chest pain or discomfort, but women are often more likely to feel shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain, said the AHA.

If you have these symptoms, don't wait for them to go away, because where heart attack is concerned, every minute counts. Don't wait - call the emergency services straight away. Emergency service staff can start to treat a heart attack as soon as they arrive, and those vital minutes can be the difference between life and death. Remember, that lack of oxygen to the heart kills, and that's what a heart attack is.

Heart disease is the number 1 cause of death for both men and women in the US, where it kills about one person every minute. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 770,000 people in the US will have their first heart attack in 2008, and about 430,000 will have a recurrent one.

Perhaps the best way a person can pay tribute to Tim Russert is to get themselves a check up, particularly if they are over 50. Who knows, perhaps he would have died sooner had he not been keeping his risks under control.

Click here for American Heart Association.

If you wish to leave a tribute to Tim Russert or tell readers about your experience of a heart attack, visit our Opinions Forum and leave a message.

Sources: NBC, AHA, CDC, Eonline.

: Catharine Paddock, PhD

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