Every hour, five Australians die from heart, stroke and blood vessel disease – a group of conditions together known as cardiovascular disease (CVD). People who survive a stroke or heart attack are often left with disabilities and long-term health problems, which can affect their quality of life and their ability to care for themselves.
Some people may not be aware they even have heart disease because symptoms or risk factors can be silent. For example, you may have high cholesterol or high blood pressure without showing any symptoms.
Preventing heart attack and stroke can be made easier by calculating your 'absolute risk' with a heart health check.
What is a heart health check?
To help prevent the risk of heart disease and stroke, you can visit your GP (doctor) for a heart health check, if you:
- have not had a heart attack or stroke
- are over 45 years
- are over 30 years and of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
This important check calculates your likelihood of experiencing a heart attack or stroke in the next five years – which is known as absolute risk score.
Knowing your absolute risk score will help you and your doctor to make immediate decisions about the best action to take to improve your heart health.
Heart health checks usually take around 20 minutes and are covered by Medicare. They are free at some bulk billing clinics and to those who are eligible.
What factors are used to calculate heart disease and stroke risk?
When your doctor calculates your absolute risk score, they will consider factors including:
Your doctor will also consider other important factors that can increase your risk such as:
- kidney function
- an irregular heartbeat (such as atrial fibrillation)
- family history of heart attack or stroke
- if you are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent or other cultural background, who are at higher risk
- if you are overweight.
After considering all these factors, your doctor will calculate your percentage score – your absolute risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke in the next five years. Your doctor will then use treatment guidelines to recommend the appropriate action for your absolute risk level.
Some people who have particular medical conditions do not need a risk score, because they are already at high risk. Your doctor will tell you if you are in this group and advise you about what to do to reduce your risk.
Your absolute risk score for heart disease and stroke
Your doctor will calculate a percentage score (or absolute risk), which puts you into one of three categories of risk:
- High risk – a score over 15% means you are at high risk. If you have a score over 15%, you have at least a 1 in 7 chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years, if nothing is changed.
- Moderate risk – a score of between 10% and 15%, you have (as a minimum), a 1 in 10 chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years, if nothing is changed.
- Low risk – a score under 10%, you have a less than 1 in 10 chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years, if nothing is changed.
Making changes after your risk score result
Your doctor will advise you on what action may be needed based on the absolute risk score you receive. You may be asked to make changes to your health or lifestyle habits. In some cases, you may also need to take medication to help reduce your risk.
No matter what your risk score, there are changes that you can make to improve your cardiovascular health. These include:
- Eating a variety of healthy foods – limit sugary, fatty and salty take-away meals and snacks.
- Eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. Include a variety of healthy protein sources – especially fish and seafood, legumes (such as beans and lentils), nuts and seeds. Smaller amounts of eggs and lean poultry can also be included in a heart healthy diet. If choosing red meat, make sure the meat is lean and limit to 1-3 times a week.
- Consuming unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese. If you have high blood cholesterol, choose reduced fat varieties.
- Making healthy fat choices with nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and using their oils for cooking.
- Using herbs and spices for flavour, instead of salt.
- Drinking mainly water.
- Avoid adding salt to food. Choose ‘no added salt’, ‘low-salt’ or ‘salt-reduced’ foods where possible.
- Stopping smoking.
- Being physically active each day.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
- Limiting your alcohol intake.
You may wish to participate in a formal health and exercise program. Ask your doctor about a suitable program or contact your local community health centre or council for more information.
Heart Foundation Walking is Australia’s largest free walking network. It is a social, fun and easy way for people to walk and be active.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Content on this website is provided for information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not in any way endorse or support such therapy, service, product or treatment and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. The information and materials contained on this website are not intended to constitute a comprehensive guide concerning all aspects of the therapy, product or treatment described on the website. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions and to ascertain whether the particular therapy, service, product or treatment described on the website is suitable in their circumstances. The State of Victoria and the Department of Health & Human Services shall not bear any liability for reliance by any user on the materials contained on this website.