Heart disease is the biggest killer in Australia, yet it seems many of us are unaware we are at risk.
New research published in the Medical Journal of Australia has found that 20 per cent of Australians between the ages of 45 and 74 are at high risk of having a heart attack or stroke over the next five years.
The study’s authors said those at high risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) could benefit greatly from being prescribed a mixture of blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering medications.
But the researchers also found that many of these people were unaware of their risk and were not taking medications that could save their lives.
Responding to the study, Professor Anthony Rodgers from the George Institute for Global Health said the findings were a “real wake-up call”, highlighting just how much potential benefit was being left on the table.
“These drugs … we know a lot about them. In the large majority of cases they’re very safe and cause little to no side effects, but they’re not being used as widely as they should be,” he said.
“[Cardiovascular disease] is our biggest killer, but there a lot of moderate to high risk people walking around unprotected in Australia.”
So how do doctors calculate a person’s risk of heart disease?
Your absolute risk score
“There’s a number of factors that you’ve got to take into account … all at the same time,” Professor Rodgers said.
“The leading ones are your age, your sex, what your blood pressure is, what your level of cholesterol is, whether you smoke and whether you’ve got diabetes.”
As well as asking you questions about your lifestyle, your GP will check your blood pressure and order a blood test to check your cholesterol and whether you have diabetes.
The results will typically be put into an online calculator — which calculates your risk of having a stroke or a heart attack over the next five years, as a percentage
The figure generated is what doctors refer to as your “absolute risk score”.
“Once you’ve got your risk estimated, the doctor will tend to think about it in categories and in general, they will regard over 15 per cent over five years as a high risk,” Professor Rodgers said.
A figure between 10 and 15 per cent puts you in the moderate risk category and less than 10 per cent in the low risk category.
So who should be asking their GP to calculate their cardiovascular disease risk?
Heart Foundation guidelines state that if you are over 45 years of age you should have your absolute risk (or heart health) checked. If you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, the age is lower, and you should get a check once you pass the age of 35.