Australia’s hidden heart epidemic taking more lives each year

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Despite deaths from most types of heart disease dropping, heart health experts warn one condition is growing more lethal – and many affected Australians do not realise they have it.

More than half a million Australians are living with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that puts you at higher risk of stroke and heart failure, and an explosion of new cases is expected in the coming decades.

The Heart Foundation is shining a spotlight on AF’s growing scourge as recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals deaths from atrial fibrillation have climbed an average of 5.6% a year over the last ten years.

The latest ABS Causes of Death figures show atrial fibrillation disorders claimed 2,235 Australian lives in 2018, or about six lives each day, up from 2,144 deaths in the previous year.

Heart Foundation Chief Medical Advisor, Professor Garry Jennings, said heart disease death rates had gradually declined overall, so it was concerning to see AF bucking the trend.

“Atrial fibrillation rates in the over-55s are projected to double over the next 20 years because we have an ageing population, and rising rates of risk factors such as obesity,” Professor Jennings said.

“Many people will have no symptoms, and often only discover they have the condition once they experience a stroke or other serious health complications.

“The burden of this silent killer will keep increasing unless AF and its risk factors are prevented, detected and treated effectively. It’s essential that older Australians with risk factors are aware of this condition and see their GP or health professional to get checked.”

AF is most common in older Australians and is a major cause of stroke. Coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions can also cause AF.

“The major consequence of AF is stroke, but your risk of stroke can be considerably reduced through evaluation, treatments and, in some cases, blood thinning medications,” Professor Jennings said.

“The link between AF and conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes is another good reason to keep these conditions under control and manage your stroke risk.

“While you can’t change your age, the good news is there are ways to manage many of the other risk factors and avoid becoming a statistic. This includes following a heart-healthy lifestyle, by eating nutritious foods, exercising, avoiding smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight.”

Professor Jennings said if you are aged 65 and older, you should have your pulse checked for atrial fibrillation next time you see your GP.

“If you experience AF symptoms such as palpitations, weakness, tiredness or dizziness, it’s important to see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.”

To learn more about AF, visit the Heart Foundation website or call the Helpline on 13 11 12.

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