The Health Test That Nearly Gave Me a Coronary

An online quiz suggests that midlife is prime time for hypochondria

If there’s one sure sign that I am undeniably middle-aged, it’s the creepy, ominous emails I’ve been getting lately. I should clarify that. The Blair Witch Project was creepy and ominous. These emails are downright disturbing. Every day, my inbox is stuffed with electronic coupons for glasses so thick they’d offend Mr. Magoo. I’m bombarded by offers of arthritis medicine. And large-print books. And enough Cialis to satisfy every old dude planning to show up at Hugh Hefner’s mansion for the next six months. 

But the missive that troubled me the most came the other day — a test to determine exactly when I can expect to have a heart attack. When I opened it, I nearly had one, then and there.

Basically, this Coronary Quiz consisted of 20 questions, many of them focusing on your bad habits (like smoking or overeating) and your parents’ illnesses and how a combination of these factors can kill you. Of course, there's not much you can do about your parents' role in all this. But the “habits” part? That’s something you can control.

So I took the quiz. And some good actually came out of it.
The test began with the easy questions: name, age, gender. I breezed through these without a hitch, as most people would. Except maybe Chaz Bono.
Next came height and weight. As I quickly learned, there’s a vital relationship between the two. Each height has a corresponding target weight, according to the Coronary Quiz; how close you come to hitting that target determines whether your weight is deemed “low,” “ideal” or “high.” (If you’ve gone above high, you don’t have to worry about the quiz. The only question left is which of your survivors should take it for you.)

I was starting to feel anxious. Maybe it was a mistake to look up my weight first, but I had to ease into this, you know? Anyway, my weight appeared to be fine — until I cross-referenced it with my height. Suddenly anxiety turned into panic. I mean, what were my chances of growing eight inches by morning?

Question number six was about blood pressure. I hadn’t checked my BP recently and wanted to do this right, so I drove to the pharmacy and tested it on their device. Another mistake. The drug store's blood pressure machine induces fear even before it spits out results. You begin by putting your arm in a cuff as tight as a Tongan Death Grip — this alone sends your blood pressure soaring into the danger zone. Suddenly you feel like a UFC fighter, juiced on ‘roids and ready for a grudge match.
I was just a third of the way through the Coronary Quiz, but the numbers were not encouraging. The test was supposed to predict longevity. If this pattern continued, I’d find out I was dead back in 1986.
Resolving to finish what I started, I returned home and ran through the rest of the questions. For example: Do you have diabetes? (I don’t, but this sure made me drop that Clark Bar like it was on fire.) Do you suffer from acid reflux? (Only when I’m forced to listen to Nickelback.) How about a balloon angioplasty? (The balloon thing sounded like a hot air excursion over Paris, so I answered in the affirmative — and lost several points). Has anyone in your immediate family ever had a heart attack? (No, but whenever I misbehaved as a kid, my father would feign a heart attack…. Maybe best to save that detail for later, when they send me a Mental Health Quiz.)
As soon as I was done, I hit send.
While awaiting my score, I reflected on my health concerns, wondering how they had morphed in recent years from a lighthearted comedy into Apocalypse Now. Certainly, I wasn’t an easily frightened kid. Unless you count those duck-and-cover exercises (you remember: the classroom drills that showed you how to avoid becoming a casualty of thermonuclear war by putting your hands over your head).

Then it hit me: Ever since I turned 50, I was continually clobbered by negative messages about my health prospects. It was impossible to turn on the TV without being assaulted by commercials telling me which juices I needed to drink, treadmills I needed to buy, pills I needed to swallow. All so my cholesterol count would start to look more like my IQ and less like my Social Security Number.
And then there's my mother. In the last decade, hardly a day has passed without her calling to tell me someone has died. A friend, a relative, a grandchild’s hamster who got ambitious and overdid it on the treadmill. I’ve asked Mom at least to start with “hello.” No dice.

The point is, I'm not a hypochondriac. I’m freaked out because I'm being hit from all sides by actual scary stuff. What's behind my mounting worries about health? It's my age, mostly. But it’s our age, too.

The results of the Coronary Quiz? I received them that evening, certain that when I clicked on the email, it would start playing “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.”

So you can imagine how I felt when I read that, miraculously, I was just a “mild coronary risk.” And that if I took Prevacid and stopped having my meals catered by Wendy’s, I’d be okay.

Something else added to my sense of relief: The testing people had promised to respond within 45 minutes, but it took them four hours. Clearly, they were busy. I wasn’t the only middle-aged dude worried about suddenly keeling over while trying to open a nitro glycerin vial. Yep, lots of fellas were just like me.

Although I’d like to think we're all handsome, charming and successful, I don't kid myself. But you know something? I’m feeling better. And, uh, I’ll take what I can get.


By Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang is a humorist, video director and journalist.

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