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Jay Leno’s last laugh with Rodney Dangerfield inspires his own new health campaign

Jay Leno, former host of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and currently hosting "Jay Leno's Garage," is speaking publicly about having high cholesterol and what he’s doing to stay healthy. He's teamed with pharmaceutical company, Amgen, for a website, Choleseterol 911, to educate Americans about this preventable and treatable condition that can lead to heart attack and stroke. (Amgen/TNS) (Amgen / TNS)
By Howard Cohen Tribune News Service

For entertainer Jay Leno, getting serious about his health began with a joke.

For a guy who turned his standup comic act into a lucrative gig hosting “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” for more than 21 years, it’s always a joke – isn’t it?

Even if Leno insists in a telephone interview that the adage that says “laughter is the best medicine” is ultimately a bunch of hooey in matters of health.

The high cholesterol he found out he had, low-density lipoprotein, or LDL – the “bad” cholesterol that can lead to heart disease – is the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Laughter the best medicine? No! It’s a terrible medicine. It doesn’t do anything at all. A guy like me will die laughing. Don’t talk to a comedian. Talk to your doctor!”

Leno says this with a chuckle, of course. There’s no mistaking the voice on the other end of the line as anyone else’s but Leno’s, the affable bit actor turned TV host who has been a fixture in millions of living rooms for so long.

This time, Leno is using that accessible persona and the goodwill his name retains among fans to spread a serious message – even if his delivery is, well, classic Jay.

He wants people to know what he found out some 20 years ago but only now is making public: He was diagnosed with high cholesterol.

Cholesterol 911 website

So Leno has teamed with the pharmaceutical company Amgen for a national campaign to promote the new information-heavy Cholesterol 911 website

Among its facts and figures – someone has a heart attack or stroke every 40 seconds in the U.S., often brought on by artery-clogging high cholesterol – Cholesterol 911 provides a discussion guide to make it easier to work closely with a doctor.

Leno, 69, is making a point about high cholesterol and the importance of knowing what your numbers are – figures you will get from your doctor with a simple blood test.

This is information you can use to treat this preventable disease through either medication, like statin drugs, or by proper diet and regular physical activity.

Yet people, men especially, are often reluctant to talk to their doctors.

Talk to your doctor

“People won’t talk to a professor who went to medical school for 18 years, but they’ll talk to Larry at the Shell station,” Leno says in mock frustration. At least Cholesterol 911 has that discussion guide that can give people access to info they can use and hopefully take the next step for a blood test, he says.

Leno was approaching 50 when his doctor diagnosed him with high cholesterol – an age that puts him in good company, health experts say.

High cholesterol risk factors

“For most of us, this really becomes a problem when we get into our 50s and 60s. However, individuals who have a strong family history of someone in their family who died of a heart attack before 55 are put at risk at an earlier age – even in their 40s, and certainly by their 50s,” said Dr. Elizabeth Ofili, a cardiologist at Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine.

People with high cholesterol (generally a reading of 200 milligrams or more of total cholesterol and an LDL at 100 or more) have twice the risk of heart disease compared to people who have readings below 200 total and 100 LDL).

According to the CDC, 71 million American adults have high LDL readings – and many have no clue that they are at risk because there are no symptoms.

“There’s no symptoms like diarrhea or that you don’t feel right. There’s not a check engine light,” says the car buff who hosts “Jay Leno’s Garage” on CNBC. “You just have no clue. It’s like stepping off the curb and you get hit by a bus.”

Leno’s health habits

Leno will be the first to tell you, “I’m not the most disciplined guy by a long shot.”

But he made some adjustments once he learned he’d joined the high cholesterol club.

“I’m not in the Bacon of the Month Club anymore, where they send you 2 pounds of bacon. I’m past that. I’m doing better,” Leno said, chuckling.

He takes statins. Doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol. Monitors his heart rate at home with a portable EKG.

He does enjoy some, well, treats, such as steak and ice cream every now and then.

“I’ve learned by just walking and not getting stressed out, you can prevent high cholesterol” and cardiovascular disease, Leno said.

That’s a point echoed by Dr. Ofili. (Ofili does not treat Leno).

Prevention tips

“Generally, the recommendation is to reduce the quantity of animal fat because animal fats above a certain range predisposes you to higher levels of cholesterol,” Ofili said.

“Balance your diet with fruits and vegetables – also with fish because fish oils balance out some of the triglycerides. Be attentive with the diet, but we don’t tell people they absolutely can’t eat this or that. Sometimes you are taking the joy out of people’s lives,” she said.

And if you need to, shed some weight. “If you are X number over your ideal body weight, getting 5 to 10 pounds lower makes a big difference in cholesterol,” Ofili said. “That lifestyle combination of being active with exercise you like and a moderate diet contributes to a longer-term success as opposed to starvation.”

But c’mon, Jay, laughter has no role?

He was joking, of course. Laugh with your doctor, and you’ll be even better off.

Dangerfield’s last laugh

Actually, a little laughter helped put Leno on the road to better health.

On Nov. 22, 2001, his 80th birthday, comedian Rodney Dangerfield was a guest on Leno’s “Tonight Show.” But when the “Caddyshack” co-star was doing his comic routine, Leno knew something was off.

Dangerfield seemed to be sweating, Leno said. Dangerfield’s familiar “I get no respect” hand gestures didn’t seem sharp.

Leno, at his desk on the set, says he turned to his producer, Debbie Vickers, and asked her to summon paramedics to the backstage greenroom.

“He was having a heart attack or a silent stroke,” Leno recalls thinking. It was a mild heart attack. Dangerfield was treated and returned to “The Tonight Show” to perform on his 81st birthday.

At that time of Dangerfield’s health scare on the show, Leno went to his doctor for a checkup.

“Years later, Rodney died,” Leno said. But just before he died at 82 in October 2004, he was in a coma in his hospital bed. Dangerfield’s wife Joan was at his bedside – as was his pal, Leno.

“Joan said, ‘He can’t respond, but I think he can hear us. Put your finger in Rodney’s hand,’ ” Leno said.

Joan then told her husband to squeeze the finger if he knew that Leno was there.

“He squeezed my finger,” Leno said. “I whispered to Rodney, ‘That was not my finger,’ and he twitched. And Joan went, ‘OMG!’ And it was kind of a funny moment before he passed away. If you’re a comic, you’d get it. I got to make Rodney laugh right before he passed.”