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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.

This week, we invite you to spend some time thinking about your heart. Not just thinking, also talking. And doing.

In these ultra-connected, data-saturated times, it is tempting to block information we fear might add to our base load of stress. What we don’t know can’t hurt us (can it)? And even if it can, what do we do about it anyway? (Who among us doesn’t sometimes feel this way?)

But while this logic might work for distant disasters, it fails us terribly when it comes to our hearts.

New figures released by the Heart Foundation for Heart Week reveal that more than two thirds of Australian adults – almost 13 million of us, or 69.1 per cent – have at least three risk factors for the nation’s biggest killer, heart disease. That’s more than three quarters of men and more than half of women over the age of 18.

Each week (including this one) more than 350 Australians will die of heart disease – one every 28 minutes. Many of these deaths are preventable.

The more risk factors we have, the more likely we are to have a heart attack or stroke.

Yet many of us don’t even know we are at risk. As Heart Foundation chief medical adviser Professor Garry Jennings puts it, “People are used to seeing their GPs when they feel unwell but heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol or family history of heart disease are often silent or symptom free.”

At the same time, it has never been easier to check our heart health, or to take action to improve it.

This Heart Week we are urging eligible Australians to visit their GP for a Heart Health Check (known to doctors as an “absolute cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk assessment”).

A Heart Health Check is quick and non-invasive, and – following years of campaigning by the Heart Foundation – is finally covered by Medicare. As of April 1, Australians aged 45 years and over, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over the age of 30, are eligible for heart checks under the Medicare Benefits Scheme. 

At your appointment, your doctor will check your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, smoking status, level of physical activity and family heart history. Most importantly, they will then work with you to manage your risk of heart disease through changes to lifestyle (bearing in mind that more than nine in 10 adults eat too few vegetables, and more than 80 per cent of us need to move more) and sometimes with medications.

If that sounds like hard work, consider this: it is estimated these checks could prevent on average 42 “heart events”, including heart attacks, strokes and deaths, every day for the next five years.

So, this week we’re reminding all Australians to look to your hearts – and to those of the people you live, work and play with.

If you’re a GP or other health professional, we can help boost your knowledge of, and confidence in, delivering Medicare-funded Heart Health Checks.

In the workplace, we encourage you to mark Heart Week by raising awareness and promoting heart health activities with staff and colleagues.

The rest of us can start by assessing our risk with our Heart Age Calculator and, if eligible, booking a heart health check.

We know it isn’t always easy to prioritise your own health. Despite our best intentions, there are so many competing demands: finding and keeping jobs, maintaining relationships, attending to our families, friends and other responsibilities. Yet, by taking responsibility for our own heart health, we are also helping all those around us who want us to stay well and active.

Finally, Heart Week is an invitation to turn our attention inwards, to focus for a short time on our most valuable and under-valued resource – ourselves. And to thank the great motor that will carry us through good days and bad, happy and sad, beat by beat, for the rest of our lives.