Taming a silent killer

News /

Share this

Adjunct Professor John Kelly, AM

CEO-National, Heart Foundation 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.

What you don’t know can hurt you. Heart disease and strokes are the biggest killers of Australians, and the biggest risk factor for both of them is high blood pressure.

But high blood pressure – known to doctors as ‘hypertension’ – is a silent killer because there are no obvious signs or symptoms, and many people don’t realise they have it.

New research by the Heart Foundation, released for Heart Week, has found that of the six million Australians who have high blood pressure, more than 2.7 million have high blood pressure that is not treated at all, and 1.4 million have high blood pressure that is treated but not controlled.  

This is a recipe for tragedy for individuals and families, too many of whom will have to cope with sudden death or life-long disabilities. Even in young Australians, high blood pressure can cause serious long-term damage; it is linked to chronic kidney disease, as well as Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

The prevalence of uncontrolled high blood pressure is a ticking time-bomb in terms of our already overstretched health system. Each year, heart disease and stroke are responsible for more than 30,000 deaths and $3.1 billion in direct health costs, and their incidence is rising.

At the moment, most people do not realise how crucial blood pressure is to their health. Only seven percent of Australians know that hypertension is a risk factor for heart disease (it causes half of all heart disease deaths), and only two per cent would focus on lowering blood pressure as a way of reducing their heart disease risk. People are much more likely to nominate stress and alcohol as key triggers.

Perhaps surprisingly, the problem of lack of treatment is more common in the cities than in regional Australia. More adults in regional and rural Australia have high blood pressure (39 percent vs 31 percent in the cities). But their city cousins are much more likely to have untreated, uncontrolled high blood pressure (52 per cent vs 37 percent). This might be because people in the regions tend to have more health problems and are more likely to be seeing their GPs regularly.

All adult Australians should have their blood pressure checked by a doctor at least every two years. Every GP should be routinely checking the blood pressure of adult patients who present to them for any kind of problem.

High blood pressure can be managed and controlled.  Your eating patterns, alcohol intake, weight and level of physical activity have a strong influence on your blood pressure. 

Many people need to take blood pressure-lowering medicine. You should work closely with your doctor to find the medicine that works best for you.

If you are among the one in 11 Australians who has not had a blood pressure check in the last two years, make that appointment today. Then urge the people you love to do the same. Consider it a heartfelt gift.

How much do you know about blood pressure? Take our quiz and find out.