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How a heart health check can save your life

Dr Hamish Black

Most heart attacks and strokes are preventable

A woman having her heart listened to by a doctor
A woman having her heart listened to by a doctor

There’s no way of dressing it up: we’re statistically more likely to die of heart disease than anything else.

According to Department of Health and Aged Care, cardiovascular disease (an umbrella term that includes heart and blood vessel diseases) accounts for one in 10 deaths; one Australian has a heart attack or stroke every four minutes and 2.5 million Australians have a high chance of having one in the next five years and may not know it.

Dr. Hamish highlights a concerning trend: "Despite the disturbing statistics, many Aussies don't take heart disease seriously," he says. "They may not realise how it affects them personally or understand that it's largely preventable."

Most heart attacks and strokes are preventable. More than half of Australian adults have three or more risk factors for heart disease, yet many people don’t know they’re at risk.

Getting a heart health check and taking steps to lower your risk are the first steps toward prolonging your life.

Credit: nib health insurance

Who needs a heart health check?

“The medical community recommends that anyone over 45 (or 30 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) have a heart health check, regardless of their sex,” says Dr Hamish.

Heart disease risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure

  • High cholesterol

  • Smoking

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Being overweight or obese

  • Drinking more alcohol than is recommended

  • Age

  • Family history

Related: Are you at risk of heart disease? 12 signs you need to know

What is involved in a heart health check?

"Many people might think a heart health check involves a GP monitoring you while you run on a treadmill or invasive tests, which can put them off scheduling one," Dr. Hamish explains.

In reality, a heart health check only takes about 20 minutes with your GP. It involves:

  • Checking your blood pressure

  • Having blood tests to check blood sugar and cholesterol levels

  • Discussing your lifestyle, medical and family history

Your GP will then assess your chances of having a stroke or heart attack within the next five years and help you make a plan to reduce your risk.

This is likely to include lifestyle changes or could also mean taking medication.

If you are aged 45 and over and do not already have heart disease, the Heart Foundation recommends you see your doctor for a Medicare-subsidised Heart Health Check.

'I was at risk of heart disease'

Helen Hartney, a cardiac rehabilitation nurse, works with people every day who have survived heart attacks and strokes, yet she didn’t think it could happen to her.

“But one day, my boss said the Heart Foundation are doing this new thing – the Heart Age Calculator – and we’re all going to do it.”

Helen was shocked when, according to the calculator, her heart age was six years older than her chronological age. “It felt quite horrible,” says Helen.

Spurred on by that result, she went to see her doctor as her cholesterol was on the rise, and they agreed it was time to control it with medication.

Helen continues to exercise and eat well but understands that with her family history and rising cholesterol, she must do more than diet and exercise.

Without understanding her risk, Helen says she would have put off getting a blood test and may not have taken the necessary steps to reduce her risk of heart disease. She says the online Heart Age Calculator was easy to use, and her cardiac rehab team recommends it to clients.

“You may think you’re fine, but in reality you may not be,” says Helen. “It’s much harder to come back from a heart attack than it is to reduce your risk before it happens.”

Related: Heart disease prevention: The health benefits of a Mediterranean diet

What else can I do to keep my heart healthy?

Dr. Hamish advises starting with a check-up for blood pressure and cholesterol. 

"While exercise and a good diet are great for heart health, knowing if you have high blood pressure or cholesterol is crucial," he explains. "These factors greatly raise the risk of heart attack or stroke."

When it comes to heart disease, there are two types of risk factors – non-modifiable and modifiable. Non-modifiable risk factors are those that you cannot change, such as age, sex or family history.

But there are plenty of modifiable risk factors that give you the power to significantly lower your risk of heart disease. This includes:

Ready to book in a heart health check?

We can help. Our Find a Provider service allows you to search for health professionals like GPs in your local area.

If you’re heading to your GP for a check-up, it could be a good opportunity to find out what other examinations you might be due for.

The content in this article serves as broad information and should not replace any advice given to you by a medical practitioner. Always seek professional medical advice before making any healthcare decisions. Article reviewed by Dr Hamish Black, April 2024.

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.