For Jay Leno, the old saw that "laughter is the best medicine" is a bunch of hooey.
"It's a terrible medicine," insisted the stand-up comic who hosted "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" for more than 21 years. "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, who performs Sunday at Treasure Island in Red Wing, wants people to know what he found out 20 years ago but only now is making public: He has high cholesterol. The condition, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — the "bad" cholesterol that can lead to heart disease — is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Leno has teamed with the Amgen pharmaceutical company for a national campaign to promote the new information-heavy Cholesterol 911 website (cholesterol911.com).
Among its facts and figures: Someone in the United States has a heart attack or stroke every 40 seconds, often brought on by artery-clogging high cholesterol.
Leno, 69, is making a point about high cholesterol and the importance of knowing what your numbers are — figures you can get with a simple blood test. This is information you can use to treat this preventable disease through either medication, like statin drugs, or through diet and regular physical activity.
Yet people, men especially, are often reluctant to talk to their doctors about it.
"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 said in mock frustration. Cholesterol 911 provides a discussion guide to make it easier to work closely with a doctor.
Doctors diagnosed Leno with high cholesterol when he was approaching 50, an age that puts him in good company, health experts say.
"For most of us, this really becomes a problem when we get into our 50s and 60s," said Dr. Elizabeth Ofili, a cardiologist at Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine. "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."
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 with 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 they are at risk.
"There's no symptoms like diarrhea or that you don't feel right. There's not a check engine light," Leno said. "You just have no clue. It's like stepping off the curb and you get hit by a bus."
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 and monitors his heart rate with a portable EKG.
"I've learned by just walking and not getting stressed out you can prevent high cholesterol" and cardiovascular disease, Leno said.