Every hour, five Australians die from heart, stroke and blood vessel disease, a group of conditions together known as cardiovascular disease. 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.
Preventing heart attack and stroke can be made easier thanks to an approach called 'absolute risk'. You can ask your doctor to calculate your likelihood of experiencing a heart attack or stroke in the next five years. This score will support you and your doctor to make decisions about the best action to take to improve your health.
When you ask your doctor to calculate your absolute risk score, they will consider factors including:
- your blood pressure
- your age (an absolute risk score is normally calculated if you are over 45, or 35 if you are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent)
- your cholesterol levels
- your gender
- whether you have diabetes
- whether you smoke.
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 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, being:
- high risk – a score over 15 per cent means you are at high risk. If you have a score over 15 per cent, you have at least a one in seven chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years, if you are left unmanaged
- moderate risk – if you have a score of between 10 and 15 per cent, you have, as a minimum, a one in 10 chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years, if you are left unmanaged
- low risk – if you have a score under 10 per cent, you have a less than 1 in 10 chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years, if you are left unmanaged.
Once you know your absolute risk score
Your doctor will recommend taking action based on the absolute risk score you receive. In some cases, you may need to take medication, while in others, you may be asked to make changes to your health or lifestyle habits.
No matter what your risk score, there are changes that you can make to improve your cardiovascular health. These changes include:
- stopping smoking
- being physically active most days of the week
- eating lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, lean meats, oily fish, eggs and low-fat dairy products
- reducing the amount of fried and baked foods you consume
- limiting your alcohol consumption
- avoiding adding salt to food. Choose ‘no added salt’, ‘low-salt’ or ‘salt-reduced’ foods where possible
- drinking water
- maintaining a healthy weight.
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.
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