One-in-five Australians aged 45-to-74 are at high risk of having a heart attack or stroke within the next five years, according to the first Australian study to quantify the nation’s absolute risk of cardiovascular disease.
The research, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, finds almost one million Australians are not receiving their recommended combination of blood pressure and cholesterol-reducing medications.
Lead study author, Professor Banks, from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at Australian National University, says the current danger is that thousands of people might be at a high risk of cardiovascular disease and likely death but not even know it.
“Most people are generally unaware that they need to get an absolute heart check," says Professor Banks.
“Yet they are recommended for all non-Indigenous Australians aged 45 and Indigenous Australians aged 35 and over."
Professor Banks explains that although many GPs conduct ‘absolute health checks’ examining the combination of risk factors that determine an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease, others just evaluate risk by looking at a patient's blood pressure separately or cholesterol separately.
The result is that many Australians in need of medications won’t be receiving them, while others will be taking medications when they don’t face a high absolute risk. For example, young and fit people with a high total cholesterol level may not need to be on cholesterol-lowering medication.
“Most people are generally unaware that they need to get a heart check.”
“So there is still a need for people to ensure they receive a proper assessment, looking at all their risk factors not one in isolation, when they go to the doctor.”
“And then there is a group of people who are recommended blood pressure and cholesterol reducing medication to reduce their risk but they don’t take it.”
Heart Foundation’s national chief medical advisor, Professor Garry Jennings, says the findings are a wake-up call – for the community, health professionals and government – about the huge number at risk and missing out on life-saving checks.
“More than 100,000 Australians have a heart attack or stroke every year, most of which are avoidable if people at risk are detected early enough and well managed,” Professor Jennings says.
“It’s time to do more to reduce death and suffering.
"Simple things - including encouraging community awareness and providing greater government support to general practice for these life-saving heart checks – will make a big difference.”
The study was conducted in collaboration with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, using data from the 2011-12 National Health Measures Survey.
It is the first study in Australia to calculate risk of heart attack or stroke, by combining individual health data on age and sex, smoking rates, blood pressure, good, bad cholesterol and total cholesterol, diabetes and kidney disease.
“It’s not enough to say ‘you have a family history of stroke so you are at a high risk,” says Professor Banks.
“All of these factors together go into the calculator to determine if you are at a high risk or low risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years.”
“More than 100,000 Australians have a heart attack or stroke every year, most of which are avoidable if people at risk are detected early enough and well managed."
Cardiovascular disease is one of Australia’s leading causes of death.
According to the Heart Foundation, one person dies from heart disease every 12 minutes.
Each year, around 54,000 Australians suffer a heart attack. This equates to one heart attack every nine minutes.
Professor Banks recommends that non-Indigenous Australians aged over 45 and Indigenous Australians aged over 35 go to their GP for an absolute risk assessment.
“You can also make proper lifestyle changes to reduce your risk: stop smoking, lose weight…These changes can more than half your risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
“We are not needlessly worrying people: there’s something we can do to prevent heart attacks and strokes.”
For information on cardiovascular disease and medication management, visit NPS MedicineWise.