Now we are sixty

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Adjunct Professor John G Kelly, AM

Group CEO, National Heart Foundation of Australia
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John joined the Heart Foundation in August 2016. Previous to that, he led sector reform for aged care as CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia. He has extensive clinical, management and consulting background in the health sector, including previous careers in law and in cardiac nursing and current academic appointments with the Sydney Nursing School and the University of Technology, Sydney.

Turning 60 is a privilege. A vantage point from which to look back at our decisions and actions; successes and challenges. To wonder at how far we have come. And to make an inventory of what we still want to achieve.

Today, the Heart Foundation is one of Australia’s best known and respected health promotion charities. We have offices in every state and territory and are one of the nation’s leading authorities on heart health.

But when we first formed, in 1959, our ideas were revolutionary. It is hard to believe that 60 years ago, heart disease was seen as a normal and unavoidable part of ageing – or that the best treatment for heart problems was thought to be bed rest.

These days, we accept that our heart health is inextricably linked to factors including the amount of fatty cholesterol in our blood, and the pressure of that blood on the walls of our arteries as it pulses around our body. We recognise that the heart, needs us to care for it if it is to stay in good shape – that means regular exercise, a healthy diet (plenty of vegetables, fruit and whole grains; go easy on the salt and saturated fat) and a balanced lifestyle (and, no, tobacco in any form does not fall into this category).

Central to this change was physician and researcher Dr Ralph Reader. He was the Heart Foundation’s first medical director and later long-time director and CEO. Reader helped transform popular thinking about heart disease – responsible at its peak for nearly one in three Australian deaths – here and overseas. In 1966 he published a report that showed that Australia’s “epidemic” of heart disease was not simply a sign of an ageing population, but was worsening across all age groups.  

The Heart Foundation backed policies to tackle head-on risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking, and to educate the community about signs of a heart attack, the role of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, and the need for cardiac rehabilitation after a heart attack.

Under Reader’s leadership, death rates from cardiovascular disease (including heart attack and stroke) first plateaued and then began to drop – a trend led worldwide by Australia.

Along the way, the Foundation backed the introduction of Australia’s first coronary care units, set up our first cardiac rehabilitation units, financed research that resulted in the first automatic pacemaker, and lobbied for the free Triple Zero (000) emergency telephone line. Sixty years since our launch, we have funded, at today’s value, nearly $600 million in research.

We know, of course, that a birthday is just a day.  But for anyone born at around the same time as the Heart Foundation came into existence, this work has already changed your life incalculably. And we want it to keep doing so.

Turning 60 – or indeed any other life milestone – can be a time of reflection and focus. Please see our 60th anniversary video, above, in which we do just that.

It is also an opportunity to take stock of our own health. And for those of us who like the idea of a long and active life, with time and energy for adventures big and small, this means heeding our hearts.

Heart disease may have dropped dramatically, but it is still responsible for 12 per cent of Australia’s deaths and kills more of us each year than any other disease. And with an ageing population, increasing rates of obesity and sedentary lifestyles, the risks remain very real. Around 1.4 million Australians are at high risk of a heart attack or stroke in the next five years, and millions have the two key risk factors, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

That is why, here at the Heart Foundation, we are looking to the future. In coming years, we’ll be taking steps to ensure that 600,000 more Australians have regular heart health checks; that 150,000 of us get our bodies moving with our Heart Foundation walking program, and that another 1.5 million learn to recognise the early signs of heart attack.  We’ll continue to support those living with heart disease. And we’ve already earmarked a further $50 million for research to reduce the risk and impact of heart disease.

Whatever your age, whenever your birthday, that’s worth celebrating.