Every four minutes one Australian is having a heart attack or stroke. In the aftermath of such a distressing and many times fatal event, these incidents are often referred to as sudden and unexpected. But are they really?

This week is Heart Week (2-9 May) and Neos Kosmos spoke to Dr Arthur Nasis, an expert in Clinical Cardiology & Cardiac Risk Assessment, in order to shine a light on the simple but fundamental ways we can prevent the tragic occurrence of a heart attack or stroke. Because, as he points out, in this day and age, people need not die from this.

“Yes. Heart attacks can be sudden and unexpected, and that is why heart disease is such an important condition to recognise and treat early,” Dr Nasis tells us.

“If people get heart checks, especially once they’re 45 years old and over, we can identify the things that increase their risk of having a heart attack later, and put in place measures to minimise their risk.”

He stresses that people can significantly reduce the rate and risk of dying or getting very sick if they get checked out.

It’s a combination of diet and a simpler, more active lifestyle that has led the first Greek Australians to live longer.

“And that’s why we really urge people to take control of their health and to get checked out. Heart disease is different to other diseases because so much of it, does depend on us, our lifestyle and our willingness to get on the front foot by going for a heart check.”

“The risks I’m talking about are, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, excess weight, smoking, family history. We know that all these factors increase the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. And we can treat them before they get to a point that leads to a heart attack.

If these conditions progress, then yes, a heart attack can occur very suddenly. A heart attack occurs when an artery becomes blocked, and blood can’t get to the heart muscle. And that can lead to sudden death. This can happen literally in an instant. But the process that leads to that can start many, many years earlier.”

Only recently, the Heart Foundation did a survey of over 1,000 Australians, and what they found was very concerning, Dr Nasis stressed.

“Two thirds of people over the age of 45, who are at increased risk of a heart attack, have not had a heart health check in the last two years! And that’s quite concerning, because we know that heart disease is preventable. We know that if people go to the doctor and get those checks, it will undoubtedly, save lives.”

And it is not just men who need to get checked, Dr Nasis stresses.

“Women are four times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer.” Dr Nasis emphasises that heart disease concerns everyone. “Especially after menopause, and as women get older, the risks are similar in both sexes.”

Simple non-invasive tests that give a clear picture of the heart

In addition to basic things like checking blood pressure, cholesterol, and sugar, there are a couple of very simple, non-invasive tests that can give us a very clear picture and window into the heart, Dr Nasis explains.

“The ones I would encourage people to consider if they have a high risk of heart disease, or family history of heart disease, is a CT calcium score, which can pick up early narrowing in the heart arteries, and the second is a stress test which shows whether there are more advanced narrowings or blockages, whether there’s any weakening of the heart muscle, any thickening of the heart muscle due high blood pressure, or any rhythm problems and most importantly, how the blood is flowing through the arteries. These two tests combined, give a very comprehensive assessment of someone’s risk of heart disease.”

It’s a combination of diet and a simpler, more active lifestyle that has led the first Greek Australians to live longer.

When it comes to a lifestyle and a diet beneficial to the heart and our wellbeing we only need to look for inspiration to the first generation of Greek Australians who have the second highest longevity in the world, after the Japanese, according to researchers.

“Predominantly this is due to the Mediterranean diet. Those first generation Greeks had a much healthier diet than our typical western diet today. They ate less food in general, and they ate healthier food. Their diet is very high in fish, in vegetables, and much less red meat, fats, and dairy products that can increase our cholesterol. And we must not underestimate the benefit of extra virgin olive oil which is very healthy and very effective at increasing our good cholesterol. Many studies around the world have shown that a Mediterranean diet, the use of olive oil, significantly reduces risk of heart disease.”

READ MORE: Kalamata olives are not just the tastiest but also the healthiest, new study finds

But it is not just the diet, Dr Nasis reminds us.

“They were much more active than we are today. They didn’t drive everywhere or get Ubers everywhere. They walked. They weren’t sitting in front of screens all day. They were physically more active. And another thing to consider is they led simpler lives, with a lot less stress. They rested more compared to a lot of people today who are very busy and under more pressure. So I think it’s a combination of their diet and a simpler, more active lifestyle that has them living longer.”

Intermittent fasting is a new trend that many people follow in an attempt to lose weight, but it has also proven to be beneficial for the heart, according to Dr Nasis. Especially if combined with a healthy, Mediterranean diet. Intermittent fasting is quite simple really. It usually means that in a day you have a window of 8 hours of eating and 16 hours when you don’t.

“We don’t know the exact mechanism of how intermittent fasting reduces heart disease risk, but there have been studies that have shown that intermittent fasting reduces blood pressure, reduces your resting heart rate, increases your good cholesterol, reduces your triglycerides, your sugar and your insulin resistance. It may be because it is giving the body time to naturally repair itself. Studies have shown that many inflammation markers and oxidative stress inside the arteries tend to settle down with periods of fasting. We also know that it reduces blood pressure, and there are cellular mechanisms that play a part.”

So, if you are 45 years old or older, when you book an appointment with your GP, make sure to discuss the risks of heart disease and whether you factor in for further simple tests to assess the health of your heart. Also, it is never too late to make small changes to your lifestyle, from eating more greens, to being more active, to sleeping more hours. It won’t only benefit the most important organ in your body, but your overall wellbeing as well.