Kathleen Casey Kirschling was born on New Year's Day, 1946, in a hospital a hundred miles away from the celebration in Manhattan's Times Square. If she had been born a second later than a second past midnight, she probably would have missed winning the title as the first of the nearly 80 million American baby boomers born over the next 18 years. As the flag-bearer for such an influential demographic bulge, Kirschling has seen her recent milestones turned into media events, with articles covering her 60th birthday, her trip to sign up for Social Security and, undoubtedly, her upcoming 2011 enrollment in Medicare. For an entire generation of people, she serves as the reminder that, yes, even they are aging.
As it happens, Kirschling is also attempting to buck one large and worrisome trend among baby boomers. A 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2000 they had more hospitalizations for heart disease than the 45-to 54-year-olds born 10 to 20 years before them. By 2030, when all boomers reach 65 and the Medicare population has doubled from what it is now, "high-risk baby boomers will place incredible demands on the already strained U.S. healthcare system," the authors wrote. At Kirschling's 45th high school reunion in October, five classmates spoke to her about their open-heart surgeries.
Kirschling, who grew up in Pennsauken, N.J., has grown concerned about her own heart health. Many of her closest family members have died young of coronary heart disease. Four uncles suffered fatal heart attacks, a few while they were still in their 40s. Kirschling's mother died at 55 of a massive heart attack. A set of grandparents and her father—who had bypass surgery when it was first introduced—also died from heart ailments.
By the time her sister Ann Marie, a year younger, had a heart attack at age 37, Kirschling was doing everything she could to avoid heart problems. She walked up to 4 miles at a stretch, five times a week, played tennis two to three times a week, controlled her weight, and ate healthfully. And she wasn't overweight, didn't have diabetes, and didn't smoke—all major risk factors for heart disease. But despite her efforts, by the time she was 49, Kirschling's cholesterol had risen to an alarming 380 milligrams per deciliter. Genetics alone drives some people's cholesterol dangerously high, says Kirschling's doctor, Emile Mohler, director of vascular medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. While the genetic underpinnings of the disease aren't well understood and aren't routinely tested for, he says Kirschling most likely has a familial predisposition to heart disease.
Veggies. Kirschling, who has a master's degree in health education, has since upped her efforts. To lower her cholesterol she tried various statins and now takes the statin Crestor along with Zetia, another kind of cholesterol-fighting drug, and an aspirin a day. She has tinkered with her diet, now eating mostly fish, vegetables, and fruit blended in smoothies. She still eats steak, hamburgers, eggs, and bacon, but only on occasion. At Mohler's request she added phytosterols, cholesterol-fighting compounds that occur naturally in some vegetables and nuts and are put into processed foods like orange juice and margarine spreads, to her diet. And she has kept up her walking routine. Her level of LDL (the "bad" cholesterol known to stick to the arteries forming plaques) is 103 mg/dL; her total cholesterol is now a much healthier 166. (For his part, Mohler is testing a treatment that takes an approach different from lowering cholesterol; its aim is to squelch inflammation.)
To protect their health as they age, Kirschling's fellow boomers might want to look at her differently—not just as an "emblem of her generation," as one report called her, but as a poster child for the power of preventive medicine. "I feel as healthy as I did at 39," Kirschling says. "It's been quite a journey."