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Do you know how healthy your heart is?  It’s worth knowing the answer since coronary heart disease is the leading underlying cause of death in Australia. 

Interestingly, a 2017 survey conducted by Heart Foundation found that one in three Australians are not aware of the typical signs of a heart attack. Here’s how you can tell. 

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Thursday, October 17, 2019 - 16:01
File size
6 min 48 sec

Heart attacks are caused by factors accumulated over a lifetime mostly affecting people aged over 45.

Nearly one in ten Australians aged 30 to 65 have been told by the doctor that they are at high risk of having a heart attack in the next five years.

Heart Foundation’s director of support and care Rachelle Foreman says half of the population wouldn’t know what to do if they suffer from a heart attack.

“Most people don’t necessarily know that their heart is actually a muscle that pumps blood around the body and like any other muscle in the body, it actually has its own blood supply and it has its own arteries that actually provides it with that oxygen and nutrient. So what a heart attack is when those arteries that supply the heart with its oxygen get blocked, and then with age, it does increase, a bit like plumbing in our hose that the chances of that one or more of your arteries to the heart becoming blocked increase.

Genetics and lifestyle factors like smoking, lack of exercise and unhealthy diet increase the likelihood of a heart attack.

Foreman suggests being aware of your family history to detect warning signs early. 

“Be aware if you do have a family history, particularly of someone having a heart event younger, someone in your family has high cholesterol or diabetes, be aware that those also increase the chances that you might have those things. So what minimises the chances is go to your GP, have a heart health check, so that you’re having your blood sugars, blood pressure, cholesterol measured, and looking at what your risk is and what you can do.”

Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that around 21 Australians die of a heart attack each day.

Clinical scientist Shoukat Khan facilitates Heart Support Australia’s national programs educating people about the prevention and recovery from cardiac events.

"Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the centre of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or that will go away and then that they’ll come back again. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure or squeezing or fullness or pain. Discomfort in other areas of the upper body or in one or both arms, in the back or even in the neck, or in the stomach. Shortness of breath may occur with or without chest discomfort, breaking out in cold sweat or nausea or light headedness."

Whilst most women are aware of the danger of breast cancer, studies by the Heart Foundation found that nearly three times as many women die of heart disease than breast cancer.

Khan says silent heart attack signs such as fatigue are commonly overlooked by women. 

“When women are suddenly worn out after typical exercise routine or they get fatigue, when they are not exerting themselves but have fatigue or a heavy chest or simple activity like making the bed or walking to the bathroom or shopping makes women excessively tired. They also experience sleep disturbances.”

Symptoms can last from minutes to months.

Foreman recommends calling triple zero if you detect warning signs.

“A lot of people do ignore those symptoms for a long period of time, when, in fact, if people are having a heart attack, the best results happen if people seek help within one hour. It increases the chances that someone may die of a heart attack the longer they wait but also the amount of disability that they would experience after an attack because more of the heart muscle has died as a result of that.”

Khan explains that the risk of a subsequent heart attack is higher for those who’ve previously had an attack. 

“There is good news that following rehab they can have a normal life but if the rehab has not been very good and the risk factors have not been looked after well and the medications have not been taken, there are chances that they could have another fatal attack within the six months or the first year.”

Foreman says mental health should be factored in as people recover from a heart attack.

“There actually are lots of emotional issues for some people as well, you know, one day, they are feeling invincible and ten foot tall and bullet proof, and now, a possible scenario where you could have died and the fact that you now are living with a chronic condition comes in.”

Heart Support Australia runs free Healthy Heart Programs for survivors of a cardiac event all over Australia.

Shoukat Khan believes peer support involving group education and discussion is a vital part of the rehabilitation process. 

“So they have more confidence in what they’ve been through and how they’re being treated and some of the medications they’ve been taking and some of the lifestyle changes they’re being recommended. This really helps in a group setting where others who’ve had the same issue - they talk about how well they are doing after heart event and what they’ve done. So it gives them confidence that they are not alone in this.”

Research shows that people of Asian, Maori, African and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds are genetically predisposed to heart diseases.

Studies by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that in 2017, coronary heart diseases accounted for 13 per cent of Australian male deaths, although one in ten female died of the same causes.

Rachelle Foreman suggests taking positive actions to reduce the risks of a heart attack.

“Everybody can improve lifestyle in some way. One little thing every single day will improve it. So you don’t have to be perfect but just think about what realistically you change today that could help you be healthier.”

For more information, visit the Heart Foundation and Heart Support Australia websites.

If you need language help over the phone, call the national Translating and Interpreting Service on 13 14 50 and ask for the organisation you wish to speak to.

Dial 000 if you or someone you know experience symptoms of a heart attack.