The Heart Foundation made headlines for the wrong reasons in June when it released a guilt-trip campaign that urged Australians to get their hearts checked.
The premise was so crazy – if you don’t care for your heart, you can’t possibly love your children, wife or the neighbours next door – that one can only conclude the foundation was tearing its hair out to make a worthwhile point.
Let’s do it with the numbers.
New research finds that one in three adult Australians have high blood pressure – more than six million people. In 2009 it was one in five, or about four million people. That was 20 per cent of the population 10 years ago – and nearly 33 per cent today.
And half of those people don’t know they’ve got it – along with the attendant risks not only to their heart and arteries, but also to their brains, kidneys, and eyes.
This suggests that people aren’t getting their blood pressure measured routinely when visiting the doctor, are oblivious to the results, or not going to the doctor at all – or maybe they just don’t think about it.
Of those who received treatment, 40 per cent still had blood pressure above the recommended level. People who smoked, drank alcohol or had cerebrovascular disease were at greater risk of having elevated blood pressure.
The invisible killer
The research was part of a global study published in the European Heart Journal Supplements for May Measurement Month, a health campaign centred around Hypertension Day (May 17) to create awareness of high blood pressure.
High blood pressure accounted for about 10.4 million deaths in 2017 and it currently affects more than a billion adults globally with the figure forecast to reach 1.5 billion by 2025.
For the study 2.7 million people were surveyed, including nearly 4000 Australians. The local end involved scientists from The University of Western Australia and the Royal Perth Hospital Medical Research Foundation.
Australian study lead UWA Professor Markus Schlaich, who holds the Dobney Chair in Clinical Research at the Royal Perth Hospital Medical Research Foundation, told The New Daily the results were “alarming”.
He said that while the Heart Foundation’s messaging had been controversial, it was with good intent.
“They really want people to understand the risks that come with heart disease. And I think that people have taken that message too lightly,” Professor Schlaich said.
He said part of the reason might be that heart attack victims – as perceived by family and friends – don’t appear to have gone through a life-threatening experience. They look as they’ve always done.
“A lot of people know someone who has had a heart attack and they look perfectly fine,” he said.
Look after your heart
So what can be done about those millions of people who don’t know they have high blood pressure? Apart from a heart attack, which is a quick and ugly way to find you have hypertension is for an aneurysm.
The simple answer is for patients and their GPs to be more proactive. Make a point of asking for a blood pressure test – or get one at the chemist.
“While blood pressure measurement is recommended as an important aspect of virtually every visit to with your GP, the reality is different,” Professor Schlaich said.
“At this time of year you might see your doctor for a running nose and a cough, and they may not always measure your blood pressure. Some do make it part of their routine. But they can be pressed for time. This is why we’re raising awareness in the public but also in GPs.”
The Heart Foundation referenced the ABS National Health Survey data for 2017-18, which focuses on the number of people who have been tested, and which paints a slightly less alarming picture.
In an email, the Heart Foundation said that, in 2017-18, more than four million Australian adults (nearly one in four) had high blood pressure when tested. Most of these people (more than three million or nearly three in four) were unaware they had high blood pressure.
“This is concerning, because nearly 50 per cent (actual 48 per cent) of heart disease deaths in Australia are attributable to high blood pressure.”
The foundation said high blood pressure “is caused by a combination of genes and lifestyle”.
The main lifestyle causes of high blood pressure are unhealthy eating patterns, including eating too many salty foods, high alcohol intake, being overweight and being physically inactive.”