Your heart - is it healthy or a problem you don't know about?

The death of John Ilhan (founder of Crazy John's stores) of a heart attack, was a shock to people across Australia. Only in his forties, Ilhan appeared to be the picture of good health, but as it turns out, this wasn't the case. A heavy smoker for many years, John Ilhan was sadly not as healthy as he looked and was seemingly unaware he had a health problem.
And, unfortunately, this is how too many people find out they have heart disease – when it's too late, or if they are lucky, as they arrive in the emergency department of a hospital.
Having a heart attack is something that most people don’t think will happen to them – at least until they are approaching old age. Having a sudden, fatal heart attack seems even more remote – but heart disease is a frighteningly real prospect for more of us than we’d care to think. 
Cardiovascular disease can lead to a heart attack or other serious medical conditions (such as stroke) that can cause death or serious illness. Cardiovascular disease affects the heart and the arteries and vessels that move blood around our bodies. It kills one Australian every ten minutes. In 2004, one in six Aussies were classified as having cardiovascular disease – that means two out of three families were affected. In the same year, it caused 35 per cent of all deaths, most of which could have been prevented. It affects men and women; again, in 2004, 11,500 women died of cardiovascular disease which is more than four times the number who die from breast cancer. Even worse, the incidence of this disease is on the rise.
The good news is that unlike other medical conditions, cardiovascular disease is something we know a lot about. Most importantly we now know that in many cases it may be prevented by living a healthy lifestyle and can be managed - if you are aware you have it.

What are your risks?

If you:
  • smoke;
  • have high blood cholesterol;
  • are a diabetic;
  • are physically inactive;
  • have hypertension (high blood pressure);
  • are overweight or obese;
  • are depressed or are socially isolated from others or do not have a support structure around you;
  • are male; or,
  • have a family history of early death from heart disease,
then your risk, or the chance of you developing cardiovascular problems, increases.

Do I have cardiovascular disease?

Sadly, many people don’t know if they have cardiovascular disease and don't suspect they might be in a high risk category. And, it's not just the elderly who suffer from it, either. Scarily, it's possible to be in your forties, appear healthy and even feel healthy, yet to be at risk of suffering a heart attack.  How do you know if it could be you?
The answer is to have regular medical check ups, even if you feel fine, and to monitor things like your cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Your doctor should also ask you about your family health history, whether you're a smoker, if you are depressed and whether you exercise regularly and eat a sensible diet. Doing things like keeping your weight down, quitting smoking and exercising a few times a week are things any of us can do – especially with the support and advice of a GP.
If you are concerned about the health of your heart and want it fully checked out, or if your doctor believes you are at risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease, he or she will arrange for you to undergo medical tests such as an ECG and some blood tests, which will give you an excellent indication as to whether there is a problem. Other tests (such as a stress test)  may then be arranged if your Doctor believes further investigations are required or if you have a history of heart problems.

An important note: Smoking and your health

Don’t think that smoking is something you can enjoy for a few years, do 'on the quiet' or even partake in 'in moderation'. There are mountains of scientific evidence that proves that it isn’t. Like the ad says, every cigarette you smoke does you damage. If you smoke, you need to be aware that by choosing to do this you are massively increasing your risk of developing all sorts of terrible, often fatal diseases, perhaps sooner than you'd think.
Smoking is never a good idea, so do yourself, your family and friends a favour – give it up and do it now.
Even if you have been a smoker, giving up reduces your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. While this effect is seen quite quickly, all things being equal, your risk will not return to the lower level of someone who has never smoked.

What are you waiting for?

So, what's stopping you? Don’t be one of the 48,000 people who die of heart disease each year.
Here are four things you can do, right now, to improve your chances of avoiding it or to prevent it from getting any worse if it already exists:
  1. Talk to your doctor about your own health status
  2. If you are overweight, lose the weight
  3. Start and maintain a regular exercise program – walking each day is ideal
  4. Stop smoking now
The Heart Foundation provides a range of information and advice for Australians about cardiovascular disease and how it may be prevented. They can be contacted on 1300 36 27 87.