Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia. On average, one Australian dies every 12 minutes as a result of a cardio vascular disease. When it comes to heart attacks, one Australian dies almost every hour. Do you know how to recognise the signs of a heart attack and what to do if it happens?

We asked cardiologist Garry Jennings from the Heart Foundation what exactly goes on when somebody has a heart attack.

"What happens is when there's a narrowing and a blockage of one of the main arteries that supply the heart muscle and the heart muscle doesn't get enough oxygen and other nutrients so it can't survive under those conditions."

The sooner you recognise the signs of a heart attack and seek treatment, the higher the chance you'll have a full recovery.

While warning signs vary from person to person, there are warning signs of a heart attack. Heart of Australia's cardiologist Rob Perel says to look out for chest pain.

"The first one is pain, chest pain. And the chest pain, if it's an acute heart attack, will be severe and unrelenting. It will usually be present on the left side of the chest, but it can be more central. The pain will radiate through the jaw and down the left arm. That's one type of chest pain. There's another one called angina where the person get a more chronic version of the same pain and it's also due to a coronary artery disease, but it's not an acute heart attack. That can be pain that is worst when you walk and better when you rest and it's in the same place."

Symptoms include chest pain, having a choking sensation in your throat, feeling like your arms are heavy, shortness of breath, nausea, cold sweats and feeling dizzy.

Both cardiologists we spoke to insisted that the first thing to do when you're having a heart attack is to call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. Once that's done, Rob Perel said there are a few things you can do to help.

"The only thing you can really do is to get to a hospital as quick as you can or call an ambulance. You should take an Aspirin at the time that would help. The ambulance officers would give you Aspirin when they turn up. You should sit down and rest and avoid putting extra stress on your heart until someone gets to you to further diagnose it and further treat it."

Heart Foundation's cardiologist Garry Jennings says you might not be sure that you're having a heart attack, but if there's even a little doubt, get to a hospital. Every minute counts.

"Quite often you might think someone is having a heart attack and they're not, but that doesn't matter. It's much better to have people checked and found to be ok than to miss people who've had a heart attack and leave things too late. Because the treatment in this case is very urgent. Every minute can result in saving more and more of the heart muscle and a much better life down the track for people."

In Australia, half of the men and a third of the women over the age of 45 will suffer from heart disease at some point in their life.

Those numbers are high, but the good news is that it's generally avoidable. Rob Perel says the key is to having a healthy lifestyle.

Heart of Australia's cardiologist Rob Perel says you're at an increased risk of a heart attack if you're a smoker, if you're overweight, if you don't do any exercise, if you have high cholesterol, if you have high blood pressure and if you have diabetes. Also if you have a strong family history of arterial coronary disease.

"So the answer to how I avoid a heart attack is: don't smoke, maintain a normal body weight, exercise, eat healthy food and avoid excess cholesterol in your diet. If you have high blood pressure, that needs to be treated. If you have diabetes, that needs to be very well managed."

During Heart Week, starting on 30 April, the Heart Foundation wants to remind Australians about the importance of having a healthy heart. Garry Jennings explains why they're encouraging people to get their blood pressure checked.

"This year, heart week is going to focus on high blood pressure, because we know that at least half of the people in Australia have high blood pressure. They don't know about it or don't have it brought down to healthy level. We know it's something that would make a big difference in heart disease in the community."

The cardiologists have one last advice for you, one that could save your life: get off that chair and move!

"We've learnt about the hazards of sitting too much, of being sedentary. It's not just about physical activity. More and more our lives revolve around sitting at a computer, sitting at work, sitting in a bus or a car going to work. One of the perils of modern life is that we sit too much and that plays to the heart disease and other conditions."

The chances of suffering a heart attack are much smaller if you lead a healthy life. But if it happens to you or somebody around you, remember the signs and act fast.

For more information visit the Heart Foundation. Information about heart attacks is also available in several languages.