Tens of thousands of Australians suffer heart attacks every year – but the most frustrating part is that we are increasing the risk by making poor choices, writes Gerard McManus
By the time you finish this article, a fellow Australian will have suffered a heart attack. Each year, 55,000 Australians suffer a hospital-diagnosed heart attack and just under 10,000 do not recover.
The actual number of heart attacks is much higher because often people do not recognise the signs. In Australia, there is a death from heart attack every hour.
In simple terms, a heart attack happens when the heart is starved of blood and oxygen.Some heart attacks are like you see in movies, where the overweight executive clutches his heart. But most are not like that, starting slowly with mild pain and discomfort, which can be dismissed.
It can be a pain in the jaw, arms, neck, stomach or the back. Other symptoms can include lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting or a cold sweat.
Shortness of breath is another classic warning sign.
Perhaps the most alarming statistic is the fact one in four people will die within the first hour of the first symptom, according to the National Heart Foundation.
A recent study of ambulance call- outs for cardiac arrests in NSW found only one in 10 people survived, sparking a call for more defibrillators across the state.
Yet despite the alarming statistics, Australians are generally relaxed about the danger of heart attacks.
Reasons for this include the fact so many people know someone who has recovered from a heart attack or a heart operation and who has gone on to lead a healthy life – albeit with a radically changed diet and lifestyle.
Another reason is the interventionist healthcare in Australia, which is arguably the best in the world.
Someone with chest pain and other heart-attack symptoms who arrives at the emergency ward of a hospital will get immediate rolled-gold service because health practitioners know if they intervene they can more often than not prevent death.
Heart attack mortality has dropped significantly over recent years.
In 2001, more than 14,000 Australians died of a heart attack, compared with less than 10,000 in 2011. The drop has largely been attributed to people stopping or not starting to smoke.
Quitting smoking is the most important factor in reducing the risk of a heart attack.
This downturn follows patterns in other western countries, such as Britain. Importantly, the rate of deaths is slowing in the same age cohorts.
The risk factors are well known: smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, physical inactivity, being overweight, depression and social isolation.
Understanding the good and bad cholesterol numbers and what makes them shift is also crucial.
The risk factors are compounded by age (the risk factor rises if you are over 40), a family history of heart disease and being part of certain ethnic groups vulnerable to heart disease.
Stress is another important influence, as is bad teeth, or more specifically gum disease, which has also emerged as a factor in recent years.
Having a lifestyle that includes one of these risk factors is bad news, but having several only increases your chances of suffering a heart attack.
The thing that frustrates health professionals about heart attacks is they are relatively easy to prevent.
The top three things you can do to prevent a heart attack are maintain a healthier diet, move around as much as possible and refrain from smoking.
Moving around includes exercise but also relates to simply moving around the office, taking the stairs or walking to the next bus stop rather than the closest one.
An improved diet and more exercise will also result in weight loss. Other things you can do to decrease the risk of a heart attack include trying to be socially connected and taking time out on the weekends or for short breaks.