Advice to help stop heart attacks for Indigenous Australians

16 March 2020

Many GPs are already screening as early as 15 but some GPs and nurses don't know about the need to test early. 

To combat high risk of heart attack and strokes, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should have had their heart checked by a GP by age 18 at the latest, according to new national recommendations. 

As part of a regular health check with a GP, the recommendations launched today have moved the age Indigenous people should get screened for Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) down from 35 to 18. 
 
Based on research from The Australian National University (ANU), a host of health professionals and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander CVD experts have agreed on the latest efforts to continue closing the gap on early heart attacks among Indigenous Australians.  
 
"We have seen great improvements in CVD prevention and this was highlighted in this year's Closing the Gap speech," said ANU lead researcher Dr Jason Agostino. 

"However, it remains a leading cause of preventable death in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We need to be doing all we can to prevent it. 

"Just about every Aboriginal person I know has a family member or a community member who's died young from a heart attack or stroke. We need to change that. 

"We can improve things by picking up conditions like diabetes and kidney disease early and starting conversations about treatment." 

In the last 20 years, the rate of deaths from heart attacks and strokes among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples have almost halved. 

However, three out of four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults under 35 have at least one CVD risk factor. 

Rheumatic Heart Disease Australia's Senior Cultural Advisor, Vicki Wade, is a 62-year-old cardiac nurse who has heart disease. She said it is important to remind community and health workers about the risks of CVD.  

"Although rates have improved, the statistics are frightening. We have generations of Aboriginal people who are not seeing their grandchildren growing up because of heart attack and stroke," Mrs Wade said.  

"This is a chance for local solutions, community engagement and health workers to be educated." 

Fellow author, Heart Foundation Chief Medical Adviser, cardiologist Professor Garry Jennings, said: "Evidence shows that Indigenous Australians have CVD risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol at a young age. We need to prevent, identify and treat these." 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should now undergo CVD risk factor screening from 18 years, at the latest, and use Australian CVD risk calculators from age 30. 

"It's easy to do. The assessment involves the normal parts of a health check with a blood and urine test. It is quick and can be done by your local GP," said Dr Agostino. 

"For the vast majority it will be bulk-billed and free." 

The move is backed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), The Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance, and the Editorial Committee for Remote Primary Health Care Manuals. 

"This is about getting consistency everywhere. This is what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and the evidence is telling us we should do," Dr Agostino said.   

"Many GPs are already screening as early as 15 but some GPs and nurses don't know about the need to test early. 

"This is about doing what we can to pick up risk factors early and close the gap on early heart attacks and strokes."  

Under the new recommendations, young adults with type 2 diabetes and microalbuminuria, kidney disease, and very high blood pressure or high cholesterol will be identified as high-risk of CVD.  

The guidelines and research are published in The Medical Journal of Australia.