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How a heart health check can save your life

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 The Heart Foundation, cardiovascular disease (an umbrella term that includes heart and blood vessel diseases) accounts for one in four deaths; one Australian has a heart attack or stroke every four minutes and 1.4 million Australians have a high chance of having one in the next five years.

Despite the eye-opening statistics, Natalie Raffoul, Risk Reduction Manager at The Heart Foundation says, “Many Australians are complacent about heart disease. They don’t consider it personally relevant or understand the preventable nature of heart disease.”

Most heart attacks and strokes are preventable. More than two-thirds 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?

“We recommend that anyone over 45 (or 30 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) have a heart health check, regardless of gender,” says Natalie.
Heart disease risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure

  • High cholesterol

  • Smoking

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Being overweight or obese

  • Alcohol

  • 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 may assume a heart health check involves running on a treadmill or having some kind of invasive procedure, and this can be a barrier to booking in,” says Natalie.

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.

'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.

Helen’s father died from heart disease, however, as a regular exerciser she considered herself in good health. Then her brother had a heart attack. “I still thought ‘Oh well, he takes after Dad who smoked and was inactive. I take after Mum, so it’s probably not going to happen to me,’” says Helen.

“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.

Cardiac rehabilitation nurse Helen Hartney

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?

The first thing, suggests Natalia, is get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked.

“The majority of Australians focus on exercise and a healthy diet as a way of reducing their risk of heart disease rather than controlling or even finding out if they have clinical risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” says Natalia.

“This is concerning because high blood pressure and high cholesterol can contribute significantly towards increasing your chances of having a 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.

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