But after a month, Piscatella saw the doctor again. The doc checked his heart and immediately scheduled heart bypass surgery. Following surgery, Piscatella talked with a heart doctor.
"He said, 'Don't worry about your diet or anything. You have aggressive coronary disease. You won't live to be 40,'" Piscatella said.
Piscatella and his wife decided to make lifestyle changes, anyway. They ate a balanced diet, exercised in moderation and practiced stress reduction.
And this year, Piscatella, now 64, will celebrate the 32nd anniversary of his operation.
"I am one of the oldest bypass surgery survivors in the country. And that's because I made behavior changes," he said.
Urging people to change
Piscatella will tell his story and present his approach to health next week at Robinwood Medical Center. His program, Healthy Living in a Doubleburger.com World, will be featured at 7 p.m. Monday, May 4, during Washington County Health System's Nurses Day celebration.
Mary Towe, chief nursing officer with Washington County Hospital, said the free presentation will help nurses spread the word about alarming health trends.
"We've become a society of supersized people," she said. "The next generation of Americans could be the first one with a shorter life expectancy than the preceding generation. People who are younger than 10 are obese and already suffering from heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol. That's unheard of."
Four bad habits of the apocalypse
In terms of behavior, Piscatella said the four worst health habits are poor diet; low levels of exercise; ignoring stress; and smoking. These, he said, are personal choices. We know better, we can change our bad habits, but we don't.
"If all you needed was the information, then we'd be a nation of nonsmokers," Piscatella said. "Cognitive understanding does not lead to behavior change."
Is that a big deal? Shouldn't an individual be allowed to behave as he or she chooses? Bad health habits affect no one but the individual, right?
Wrong, said Piscatella. Take smoking. The impact of smoking extends beyond the individual.
"For the employer, on average, a smoker is going to cost a company in the vicinity of $800 to $1,200 more than someone who does not smoke," he said.
Leading a horse to water
According to statistics from insurer United HealthCare, in 2007, the average health care policy cost per employee was $8,700.
Andrea Rowe, regional director of wellness for United HealthCare, works with Western Maryland businesses to reduce health insurance costs.
Rowe said smoking is high on the list of individual behaviors to change.
"What's difficult, there's no (health insurance) code that says 'this person's a smoker,'" she said. "But the types of effects that show this person's a smoker are known: Lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Also, smokers are sick more often and take more time off."
Rowe works with her clients to set up programs to motivate employees to quit smoking. But programs only go so far.
"You set up the programs, but when you ask, 'Who's willing to change?,' no one will be willing to change," she said.
Rowe cited an typical employee health insurance profile.
"When we're talking about 100 employees, 66 are overweight, 39 don't exercise, 29 are stressed and anxious and 23 smoke," she said.
Personal choice dominates personal health.
"When you're talking about improving the quality of your life, genetics accounts for about 20 percent and access to care is about 10 percent. There's some environmental influences, too. But about 50 to 80 percent is behavior."
If you go ...
WHAT: Healthy Living in a Double-burger.com World, community program about healthy lifestyle choices.
WHEN: Monday, May 4 at 7 p.m
WHERE: Robinwood Medical Center, Suite 142, east of Hagerstown
COST: Free admission
CONTACT: For registration or information, call 888-803-1518
MORE: Author and keynote speaker Joe Piscatella will offer attendees a step-by-step guide to healthy eating in the real world