Jay Leno Speaks Out About His Battle with High Cholesterol: It's a 'Time Bomb'

High cholesterol shows no symptoms and can cause heart attacks and strokes

When Rodney Dangerfield was visiting on The Tonight Show in the early 2000s, Jay Leno recognized something about his guest that those in the audience and at home likely couldn’t notice.“Years ago Rodney was on my show and he was doing Rodney’s thing, the ‘Hey, hey, hey I tell you,’ you know how he does it,” Leno, 68, tells PEOPLE. “I know Rodney and I know his act, and his movements were off. As he was doing his standup I told our producer, ‘I think Rodney’s having a stroke or heart attack. Call the paramedics.’ “

The legendary comedian was able to recover from the stroke after being taken from the studio to a nearby hospital, Leno says. But that night caused the television host to reflect on his own health, especially after he was diagnosed with high cholesterol and shown a scan of a blockage in his heart. In a new video in association with Cholesterol 911, Leno is hoping to raise awareness about the importance of routine check-ups and eating healthy.

“We really want people to see the connection, ’cause a lot of people don’t realize high cholesterol, and if you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, you’re increasing your risk for another one,” Leno says while surrounded by a collection of vintage Brough Superior Motorcycles at his garage in Burbank, California. “It’s like an earthquake, it might not destroy the house, but it certainly weakens the structure.”

Unlike other diseases, the effects of having high cholesterol often don’t appear until it’s too late.

According to Mayo Clinic, while your body needs cholesterol to build cells, having too much of it makes it difficult for blood to flow through vessels, increasing the risk of a heart attack. It also boosts the odds of having a stroke, which kills about 140,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Courtesy Jay Leno

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“There’s a lot of people walking around like that, they’re just time bombs. You’ve got all this cholesterol, you don’t realize it until it actually hits, you know?” Leno explains. “It’s like in a car, if even one piece of dirt gets in the eye of the needle of the jet, and boom and no more gas comes through. And that’s what happens with your heart.”

To manage his cholesterol, he takes medication and uses a portable EKG device that monitors his heart rhythm and detects irregular heartbeats. He also stays away from alcohol and cigarettes, but isn’t “perfect,” Leno says (he had a steak and ice cream the night before).

“I’m not one of those guys. I don’t run five miles a day and do all that kind of stuff,” he says. “Hopefully I’m appealing to people who think like me, which is probably the majority of the population, who would like to do more but not if it sounds like kind of a pain. But this is not a pain, it’s really simple. You go to the doctor, it’s a quick visit, he can tell you what you need to do.”

Jay Leno. Courtesy Jay Leno

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Dangerfield would pass away from complications from a small stroke in October 2004, weeks after he underwent heart surgery. Leno was able to visit his friend at UCLA Medical Center in the days before his death.

“Rodney’s laying there and his wife, Joan, tells me he can’t speak or react, but that she thinks he can hear me,” Leno remembered. “Then she told me to put my finger in his hand, and she tells him, ‘Rodney if you can hear Jay, squeeze his finger.’ “

Leno put his finger in his longtime friend’s hand and felt him give it a squeeze.

“I felt him squeeze my finger,” Leno says while smiling. “And I went, ‘Rodney… that’s not my finger!’ He jumped and it got a reaction! It was just a silly, funny moment.”

While he is always one to want to bring a smile to the ones he loves, Leno knows when it’s time to get serious.

“We lost a lot of the guys,” he says. “From stuff that, I don’t know if it was preventable, but maybe if somebody had done something, something could have been averted.”

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