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Strong, coordinated action needed to help 6.5 million Australians lower cholesterol and avoid heart attack

Heart Attack

High-cholesterol a leading risk factor for heart attack

A new report on Australia’s heart health to be released today takes aim at Australia’s concerning prevalence of high-cholesterol, a leading risk factor for heart attack that is estimated to be affecting 6.5 million adult Australians.

The Cholesterol Roadblocks and Solutions report was developed by the Heart Foundation in collaboration with the World Heart Federation and a roundtable of Australian healthcare experts.

It makes a number of important recommendations that will require the combined efforts of patients, GPs, the cardiovascular sector and Federal and State/Territory Governments to implement over the coming years.

If implemented, the recommendations will help to lower cholesterol levels of the many Australian adults who experience high-cholesterol, helping to prevent thousands of potential and unnecessary heart attacks and strokes.

The report’s recommendations include:
– Primary prevention (people without heart disease):
o A national heart disease screening program, incorporating existing Heart Health Checks, which proactively engages people at-risk to have their cholesterol and heart health checked.
o An integrated cholesterol awareness campaign targeting people as young as 18 to start taking measures to protect and check their hearts.
o Support for healthcare professionals to promote a consistent, best-practice approach to managing cholesterol.

– Secondary prevention (people with heart disease):
o A more integrated and streamlined heart healthcare system across hospital, primary care, allied health and cardiologists to streamline care for patients.
o A standard package of care for people leaving hospital after a heart event
o Digital cardiac rehabilitation programs that empower patients, regardless of where they live, to recover from a heart attack or angina

– Support for genetically inherited (familial) high-cholesterol
o Estimated to impact 100,000 Australians, more work needs to be done to better engage and support these patients, including a review of existing evidence to develop a specific screening program.

Connection to existing Heart Health Checks
The report and its recommendations come as Medicare-subsidised Heart Health Checks – which have been taken up by almost 350,000 Australians since 2019 and include a test for cholesterol levels – are due to expire at the end of June 2023, leaving Australians exposed to the burden of heart disease.

The Heart Foundation notes that more Australians than ever are turning to Heart Health Checks, with the latest data released by Medicare showing that in August 2022 a record 14,898 people saw their GP for a Heart Health Check.

This number would grow even more substantially if the report’s recommended national screening program was in effect. A true screening program would proactively call-up Australians who were at-risk of heart disease to have their check. Currently, the onus is on Australians to ask for one.

Overview of Australia’s high-cholesterol crisis:
• High cholesterol is the leading risk factor for heart attack in Australia, estimated to affect 6.5 million adults, or a third of our adult population.
• People with high-cholesterol may be unaware of the issue as there are no obvious symptoms.
• In fact, it is so widespread that cholesterol-lowering medications called statins are the most prescribed drug by volume in Australia on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Even so, among people hospitalised with heart attack or angina (chest pain), almost half still have higher thanrecommended cholesterol levels 12 months later.
• Although cholesterol is naturally used by your body to produce hormones and digest fats, an excess of cholesterol can build up on the walls of arteries as a plaque, eventually blocking blood flow and causing a heart attack.
• Along with high blood pressure, age, poor diet, physical inactivity and family history, high-cholesterol is one of the key risk factors for heart disease.
• Heart disease is already the leading cause of death in Australia. Each day, heart disease causes more than 440 hospitalisations and 45 deaths.

Quotes attributable to Erin Bowen, National Manager of Health Research and Innovation at the Heart Foundation:

“We estimate that millions of Australians could be unaware that they have high-cholesterol and therefore at greater risk of heart attack in the coming years.

“With thanks to our roundtable participants, the Heart Foundation has identified key roadblocks and solutions we need Australians, the healthcare sector, and Governments to work towards if we are to reduce the devastating burden of high-cholesterol on Australian lives and our healthcare system.”

Table by state and territory:

STATE/TERRITORYNumber of people estimated to have high LDL
cholesterol (18+)
New South Wales2,041,424
South Australia500,813
Western Australia736,400
Northern Territory55,755

NOTE: Australia’s adult population at 30 June 2021 (latest data with age groups): 20,039,723. 32.8% of adults 18+ have high cholesterol (2011-12 rate): there are an estimated 6,573,029 Australians 18+ with high cholesterol in 2021

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