Though comedian and TV host Jay Leno was diagnosed with high cholesterol 20 years ago, he only made it public recently—and for a really good reason. The 68-year-old Leno has partnered with the pharmaceutical company Amgen to launch Cholesterol 911, a national campaign that sounds the alarm on high LDL-C—the “bad” cholesterol that increases your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Today, nearly seven out of ten adults in the United States with cardiovascular disease still have high LDL cholesterol—even though they’re taking cholesterol-lowering statins, according to Amgen; for patients who have had a previous heart attack or stroke, their risk of having another cardiovascular event is one in three. Leno, who hosted The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for two decades and is currently producing and hosting the fourth season of his CNBC show, Jay Leno’s Garage, says he has taken statins for years but didn’t realize he was still at risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
“It was one of those deals where you start taking medication, but what I wasn’t aware of is the fact that you can feel good and think everything is fine but high cholesterol doesn’t work that way,” he says. Upon learning about his ongoing risk, Leno was inspired to work on an informative—and humorous—video about treatment.
Leno has witnessed the impact of heart attack and stroke, having watched several friends face these health challenges. “A friend of mine is 69, runs three miles every day, eats kale salad, and then one day had a stroke,” he says. “Meanwhile I’m eating pizza and watching TV. He’s furious at me and I agree: It’s not fair—life isn’t fair but a stroke is akin to looking the wrong way when stepping off the curb and getting hit by a car.”
Another lasting memory for Leno: A segment comedian Rodney Dangerfield did on his show in 2001. “I’ll never forget watching him do stand-up and feeling like Rodney was off his game,” Leno recalls. “While he was doing his act I asked my producer to call the paramedics.” Dangerfield then joined Leno for an interview and, while he seemed fine, Leno noticed that he was sweating more than usual.
“After the show, the paramedics came,” Leno says. “Turns out Rodney had a mini-stroke and they told me that I might have prevented a heart attack. What did that take on my part to call the paramedics? I don’t know if it changed his life but it definitely helped him get back on track.”
Although Leno has never smoked or drank, he does love food: “I’m Italian so you just eat.” He says his favorite “food groups” include hamburgers, hot dogs, and steak. “I don’t have the healthiest diet but I’m trying to do better.” Check out the 5 foods that lower cholesterol naturally.
Along with changing his eating habits, he always remembers to take his statins and he tries to stay active. In the end, Leno says that if he can help one person through the Cholesterol 911 campaign, he will be very happy. “It’s fun to make people laugh for a living, but if you can save someone from a heart attack or stroke, it feels like you did something in the world,” he says. Here are things doctors do to lower high cholesterol.