health

Shane Warne, Kimberley Kitching, and why 52 is a dangerous age for heart attacks.

In the space of a week, two well-known Aussies died from suspected heart attacks. They were both 52. 

The world was shocked. Was it a coincidence that former cricketer Shane Warne and Labor senator Kimberley Kitching suffered hearts attacks at the same age?

Then there's former AFL player Dean Wallis, also aged 52, who recently suffered the same medical episode as Warne and Kimberley.

While Wallis is now in recovery, you might be left thinking: How likely are heart problems in your 50s? Is it common to die so suddenly and unexpectedly of heart disease?

Watch: 7 health myths debunked. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia. The real kicker? It's a preventable disease.

In this week's episode of Mamamia's The Quicky podcast, host Claire Murphy spoke to an expert cardiologist to find out who is most at risk of a heart attack and what we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones as we get older.

Below, we look at some of these important findings.

More of a podcast person? Listen to this episode of The Quicky. Post continues below.

Here's everything you need to know about heart health - including how to know if you have a problem and what lifestyle choices you may be making that could put your heart at risk.

What causes a heart attack?

According to Mayo Clinic, a heart attack occurs when one or more of your coronary arteries becomes blocked. 

This can happen over time, where a build-up of fatty deposits (including cholesterol) form substances called plaques. This can end up sticking to the artery walls and narrow the blood flow. Meaning? The blood flow to the heart can stop altogether. 

ADVERTISEMENT

During a heart attack, the plaque can actually rupture and send this substance into your bloodstream. At the site of the rupture, a blood clot forms - which can also block the blood flow and oxygen to the heart. 

Another cause might be a spasm of a coronary artery that shuts down the blood flow. Things like smoking and drug use can cause these kinds of spasms. 

Another lesser-known trigger? COVID-19.

Recent research shows 72 per cent of those infected with COVID-19 experienced an increased risk of heart failure, and 63 experienced an increased risk of heart attack the year after becoming infected.

How can COVID impact our hearts?

When it comes to the statistics on risk factors, men aged 45 or older and women aged 55 or older are more likely to have a heart attack than younger men and women. 

At 52, Shane Warne fell directly into that age group - recently dying after a suspected heart attack while on holiday in Thailand. 

It's worth noting that Warne had caught COVID twice. He was infected while in England towards the end of last year, and again in the weeks before his death.

Of course this bears the question, could his infection have accelerated his chances of having a heart attack? Or is the culprit more likely to be his history of smoking, a poor diet or even the dramatic weight loss plan he put in place? 

ADVERTISEMENT

For Warne, there were revelations he was on a 'fluid-only' diet for fourteen days prior to his trip, posing the very real dangers of extreme dieting for heart health.

Labor senator Kimberley Kitching died just a few days after Warne while she was driving in Melbourne. She was just below the average age for women to suffer from something like this - aged 52.

After reportedly feeling unwell and pulling her car over, her husband sent an ambulance to the scene. Sadly, she couldn't be revived.

Image: AAP

Like Warne, Kitching also experienced dramatic weight loss in recent times. Importantly, she'd also been under immense stress at the time of her death, seeking pre-selection at the next election.

A recent Harvard University study found stress can play just as important a role in heart attacks as smoking and blood pressure issues. 

In Mamamia's The Quicky podcast, Claire Murphy spoke to cardiologist Dr Arnagretta Hunter

She said, "COVID-19 is a systemic infection, so it doesn't just give us a cough and a runny nose and affect our lungs - it can affect all different parts of our body, and that includes the heart."

ADVERTISEMENT

"There's some really interesting research about how the virus might affects the heart function. [That includes] people going on to experience problems with how their heart contracts or something called heart failure after they've had coronavirus."

"It can cause inflammation that affects the heart muscle. It can [cause] heart rhythm abnormalities or where your pulse might become irregular."

"All these things are quite common, sometimes while in the recovery period, after a coronavirus infection. What many of us now know, after watching friends and family with COVID - particularly in the last couple of months - is that it knocks you out for a while." 

"If you've had it really badly, that can also be quite profound. You can be in hospital for a few weeks, and recovering for many months afterwards."

According to Dr Hunter, these sorts of significant things can leave a mark on our health - and it can take a very long time to recover.

What about medications and the impact on our heart?

It had been suggested that Kitching was being treated for a thyroid condition that was contributing to heart problems. The politician had been taking medications since her condition was identified last year.

"Absolutely medication can affect our heart," said Dr Hunter. "While I don't know the specifics of these particular medications, having an over-active or underactive thyroid can affect the heart and any thyroid medication treatment can affect the heart."

"So, I think it's really important when you think of our health and wellbeing that you view the body as one big thing. One part of our body [such as] the thyroid, the lung or the brain may have an impact on other parts of the body."

"Significant weight loss can also change how our body works, but I'm not sure it will increase your risk of a heart attack." 

Why are men more susceptible to heart attacks?

"I think there are a number of different reasons. We don't completely understand it in the literature, but there's definitely gender biases," Dr Hunter shared.

When it comes to plaque building up inside the arteries, Dr Hunter said that at age 50, about 50 per cent of men will experience at least the early start of that process (called atherosclerosis).

"Women tend to develop heart disease at a later point. That fifty-fifty point - where half a group of women will experience changes in their coronary arteries, is actually in their 60s."

"So, we do tend to get that survival advantage. And I'm sure hormones [are] another element to that."

Does genetics play a role here?

"Family history is always an interesting element, where cardiologists see patients where the only risk they've got is a family history," said Dr Hunter.

ADVERTISEMENT

In fact, there are many other health problems that can run in the family as well - and they can all contribute to heart problems, like very high blood pressure and lifestyle behaviours.

For example, Dr Hunter said if your family smokes, then you're more likely to smoke. If your family's diet is less than ideal, you're more likely to follow the diet trends you grew up with. Type 2 diabetes also runs in the family, as well as patterns of exercise.

If you do have a family history of heart problems, get your heart checked. 

Doctors are reporting a rise in middle-aged men making appointments with their GP's to discuss their heart health. Dubbed the 'Warnie effect', the Heart Foundation also reported a big increase in visitors on its website.

Simple tests like having your blood pressure checked, your blood sugar to assess for diabetes and your cholesterol can be done quickly and easily by your GP and give you a good idea of your risk of heart disease.

What should we be doing to keep our hearts healthy?

Other than have regular tests, the good news is that there are some really easy changes you can make to your lifestyle to reduce your risk of heart issues. 

When it comes to heart health, there's a lot of complicated, ineffective and unachievable advice out there - so, most experts will recommend keeping it simple.

Dr Hunter said when it comes down to lifestyle factors, smoking is your main enemy. "It's one of the biggest triggers for heart disease," she said. "These days, no one should be smoking."

Experts also say that there is a potential risk - specifically for people with an underlying heart problem - that removing whole food groups and important nutrients makes you more likely to suffer a heart attack.

"Particular forms of dieting have been associated with a high risk of heart attack. I remember a couple of years ago the Atkins diet was quite fashionable," said Dr Hunter.

"There was a tiny report that showed that during ketosis people can get more dehydrated, and we do see some increases [in heart disease]. So, there have been some associations with this previously."

Dr Hunter stresses the need for a balanced diet. For most people, simply increasing the intake of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, as well as reducing salt intake, can have significant benefits.  

Feature image: Instagram/@shanewarne & AAP.

Want to have your voice heard? Plus have the chance to win $100? Take our survey now.