Which is Australia’s deadliest disease? You may have guessed it right. It is cardiovascular disease (CVD). That is the umbrella term used for all heart-related conditions including coronary heart disease, stroke and heart failure. It takes the life of 1 Australian every 12 minutes. That is almost 30% of all recorded deaths in Australia, according to the Heart Foundation. That’s why we mark every February as the Heart Health Month to raise funds for Heart Research, Australia. And we offer symbolic support by wearing red on February 14. Just makes Valentine’s Day even more meaningful!
Why is it so important to invest in heart research? According to the Heart Foundation, each heart attack costs over $25,000 in direct costs and $281,000 in total costs. The cost to the exchequer was over $4 billion in 2011. But here is the dichotomy. While Australia’s heart disease rate as a percentage of the population has fallen, costs have not fallen to the same extent, shows 2014 data from the ABS. Also, as Australia ages, the cost of CVD is expected to rise. The data also shows that Aboriginal communities and those in lower socio-economic groups are at more risk.
There is cutting-edge heart research taking place globally, and Australian institutes are doing their bit. Across the country, research is being conducted in areas of heart health like thrombosis, vascular complications, immunobiology, etc. Another big part of heart research is in early detection and prevention. We know that lifestyle rates as one of the top risk factors in heart health. Heart health has several risk factors, and most Australians have at least one of them. Reducing the incidence of heart attacks through a healthy lifestyle is the most cost-effective and community-based programme we can have.
We all know that a good lifestyle is about a healthy diet and regular exercise. Putting it into practice is harder than it sounds. One of the simplest programmes is what Cardiologist Dr Barin calls his 4-M approach, Move, Meals, Measurement and Mental Approach. He recommends:
- Move: Keep moving at any age and at any level of fitness. Exercise has proven to stimulate the immune system, reduce blood thickening and lower blood pressure.
- Meals: This is the hard bit. And it’s not just about calorie control. It’s about eating good food in the right quantities. The good fats, carbohydrates from wholemeal foods and natural sugar from fruits should all be part of a heart-healthy diet.
- Measurement: Do more than just stepping on the scales every day. With your GP design a good monitoring plan to measure blood pressure, cholesterol, sugar and heart pump function. Good monitoring goes a long way in early detection of a problem.
- Mental approach: Happy people are healthy people. Most of the time. Stress, anger and depression can worsen heart health. Making lifestyle changes to reduce stress in your daily life can have a very positive effect on your vital signs
And if there is one vulnerable group that should be throwing all their weight behind Red Feb, it is women. Few know that heart disease kills four times more women than breast cancer and 40% of heart attacks in women are fatal (Source: Heart Foundation). Why is that? While the risk factors for men and women are very similar, the symptoms of a heart attack in a woman are very different. The deceptive symptoms often result in a delayed call for emergency medical assistance. Now that is a key area for an awareness drive.
You may have a very healthy lifestyle and may or may not have risk factors associated with CVD. But how do you know for sure that there is no problem? During a routine medical check-up with your GP, you could discuss a testing plan if you have reasons for concern. Some diagnostic tools are:
- Echocardiogram: A painless test, this provides an ultrasound picture of the heart and show if everything is in working order. If there is a problem, it will show up in the test. It takes about 30 minutes and the test will be evaluated by a specialist.
- Electrocardiogram: Unlike the echocardiogram, this test records the electrical activity of the heart, via electrodes placed on your chest, wrist and ankles. A picture of the heartbeat indicates if the heart is healthy or not.
- Exercise stress test: Does the heart cope well under pressure? That’s what this test is about. It is a bit like a 30-minute gym workout. You may be asked to walk on a treadmill with the difficulty constantly increasing. The idea is to push yourself as hard as you can to test your heart. Usually, a doctor is present for this test, and at the first sign of discomfort, the test is stopped.
- Gated blood pool scan: You probably have not heard of this test. It is used to test how well the pumping station (the chambers) of the heart is working. For visibility, a small, safe amount of radioactive material is injected which highlights the amount of blood pumped from the heart.
- A Heart Scan: Now this is a big one. It takes about 4-5 hours and evaluates the blood flow at rest and after exercise, unlike other tests. ECG nodes are attached to the body and all vitals are measured throughout the duration of the test, which involves moderate exercise on a treadmill and a three-hour rest period. Often the patient needs to come back after 18 hours for another ECG.
For some risk groups, chances of having CVD are very high, but with the right lifestyle changes, it is possible to lead a full life and never have a life-threatening episode. There are a lot of resources out there to help you achieve good heart health. Heart Research, Australia and the Heart Foundation are just two of these. There are also support groups in local communities that can be a good source of information. Also, your GP can be a big part of your management plan by providing lifestyle guidance, medication and regular monitoring.
Let’s give Red Feb a big helping hand by raising funds and awareness!