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It kills more people than cancer every year, yet for many Australians, heart disease doesn’t seem to be a major cause for concern.
In fact, YouGov Galaxy’s Heart Health Study — commissioned by News Corp Australia in partnership with the Heart Foundation — reveals that a staggering 51 per cent of Aussies wouldn’t be overly concerned if diagnosed with the condition — and one million would rather risk a heart attack than take medication.
These are hard truths to swallow, but not surprising, according to cardiologist Professor Garry Jennings.
“I do sense a kind of complacency in our community when it comes to heart disease,” he says.
“People don’t think it can affect them or understand how common it is. A 45-year-old woman has a one-in-three chance of developing a heart problem sometime in her life while a man of the same age has a one-in-two chance.
“It’s currently Australia’s biggest killer and unless something changes, it will stay that way for some time.”
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As well as increasing your chances of an early death, heart disease can leave you as much as $70,000 in debt due to lost income and medical bills, and it can have a devastating impact on your family and friends.
“Not everyone survives a heart issue and it’s such a gut-wrenching time for the loved ones left behind,” says Dr Nikki Stamp.
“The only upside is that sometimes a family member’s illness leads to everyone else getting checked,” she adds.
Prof Jennings agrees: “A heart problem can be a positive thing in the sense that it provides a real wake-up call for the rest of the family, but it’s still a devastating event. Most people don’t get back to their full occupational status, the people around them are worried about what will happen next and there’s also a disruption to family life thanks to the need for medical care.”
Despite the fact that 94 per cent of Australians have at least one risk factor for heart disease, only three per cent of adults have had a complete check-up in the past year.
“Heart disease is often seen as something that happens to older people, but the damage process actually starts in your 20s, so you need to be thinking about your heart early on,” Dr Stamp says.
“Also, many of the risks — such as high blood pressure and diabetes can be asymptomatic, so you wouldn’t necessarily know that something was wrong.”
In addition to its silent symptoms, heart disease can also be signalled by an increase in fatigue or shortness of breath, which makes it harder to engage in heart-healthy habits such as exercise, quality sleep and a healthy diet. It’s a vicious cycle, but according to Dr Stamp, it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Even if you have a genetic predisposition to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol, anything you do to be healthier is good,” she explains.
“Research suggests that being active, quitting smoking and eating well can significantly decrease your risk.”
Thanks to a campaign by the Heart Foundation and News Corp Australia (the publisher of this paper), a new Heart Health Check Medicare rebate was introduced on April 1 this year, making it easier than ever to take control of your risk.
The rebate scheme gives Australians considered to be at high risk of heart disease (people aged 45 and over, or 30 and over for Indigenous Australians) access to a more in-depth assessment with their GP. If more people take up this opportunity, it could lead to an increase in early detection rates and a drop in preventable hospitalisations.
“Heart disease is preventable, but you can only prevent something you are aware of,” says Prof Jennings.
“You need a full heart check to really understand your risk, then you need to do something about the results. You can’t do anything about your genes, but you can change your lifestyle and take life-saving medications.”