Did you know that today, 41 Australians will die from a sudden cardiac arrest?
While many under the age of 35 may turn a blind eye to the issue, new analysis by the Heart Foundation has revealed that younger people and those considered ‘healthy’ are also at risk.
“Unfortunately a lot of people think that heart disease is just an old person’s condition, particularly an old man’s condition, but that’s not the case,” says Rachelle Foreman, health director for the Heart Foundation in Queensland.
“It can happen a lot younger and it certainly happens to women as well, it’s just that women tend to be a bit older because oestrogen protects us a little bit until we’re post-menopausal. So there’s a lot of misconceptions out there.”
And these misconceptions are contributing to the 15,000 deaths in Australia each year that are caused by sudden cardiac arrest.
In such cases, the heart may either stop beating or beat irregularly and ineffectively in a rhythm known as ventricular fibrillation. Unfortunately, about a third of sudden cardiac deaths occur without warning and it is a particularly tragic and traumatising experience for loved ones left behind.
“It can actually happen to anyone at any age,” Ms Foreman tells Neos Kosmos. “But with under 35s it is likely to be due to a congenital heart condition or a genetic heart arrhythmia. But they’re usually not aware they have it,” she says, which is why she stresses the importance of knowing one’s family history.
“Sometimes families don’t talk about these things, it depends on how close they are; but it’s important to know, and particularly about cholesterol, which is familial and genetic.”
Those with genetically high cholesterol, known as familial hypercholesterolaemia, are unable to control their condition through lifestyle and diet, and it often goes undetected if not tested, bearing grave repercussions.
“People who you hear of having heart attacks at a young age often have very high genetic cholesterol but don’t know it. In fact, most people cannot tell whether they are good, bad or indifferent just by how they feel, and could be in a bad way for a long time before having any signs or symptoms,” she explains.
“So that’s the first thing: having a heart health check with your GP is important and it’s fairly painless.”
The process entails talking through your family history with your doctor, and also about your lifestyle, and other clinical risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. In the case that someone is determined to be at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, Ms Foreman says genetic testing, such as echocardiograms, are recommended, though not yet widely available throughout the country.
Though it’s been drilled into our heads from film and television representations to look out for chest pain as the main symptom of a heart attack or cardiac arrest, for those with a rare genetic condition, warning signs often come in the form of heart palpitations, dizziness, sudden fainting, seizures, and headaches.
For others, including those over 35, they may experience heaviness or tightness in the chest, pain in the neck, jaw, arms, shoulders or back, while women have reported nausea, shortness of breath, or a cold sweat, which could even be mistaken for the flu.
“Our message is, if it lasts more than 10 minutes or it’s getting worse, call triple zero and get help quickly because it could be life or death,” says Ms Foreman, as every minute that the heart and other vital organs don’t have oxygen is an extremely time-critical situation.
Which is where knowledge and awareness are vital.
“That’s when you need people to really act quickly. Obviously call the ambulance, but also do CPR while you’re waiting and if there’s a public access defibrillator available don’t be afraid to use it.”
She reassures that the instructions are always clearly labelled and that it will only be activated and give someone a shock if they’re heart is detected to be beating in an irregular rhythm that needs it, adding that “it won’t do any harm, but it could definitely save somebody’s life”.
To help raise awareness and much-needed funds, The Heart Foundation’s ‘Big Heart Appeal’ campaign kicked off on Thursday, with 65,000 volunteers set to hit the streets.
Money raised will be put towards the $13 million worth of research a year that the foundation funds, along with resources to raise awareness across the community – a worthy cause given that two-thirds of people suffering a cardiac arrest would have had some warning that they would have ignored.
And in some fatal cases the reasoning for not getting help is, well, silly.
“People don’t want to be embarrassed if it turned out to be nothing,” explains Ms Foreman. However as we know, no one ever really dies from embarrassment.
“Our message is don’t be embarrassed, the ambulance doesn’t have better things to do. Cardiac arrest is a category one emergency and heart attack category two, so that’s pretty important for the ambos to be helping people to get treatment for, and you’re never wasting their time.”
If you think you or someone you know could be having a heart attack, call triple zero (000). You can help by volunteering or donating generously to the Big Heart Appeal at www.bigheartappeal.org.au
For more information call the Health Information Service on 1300 36 27 87 or visit www.heartfoundation.org.au/support/health-information-service, or via the Interpreter Service www.heartfoundation.org.au/support/translating-and-interpreting-service