- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia and globally.
- A major study has found the incidence of serious cardiac and cardiovascular problems was higher among people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 compared to those who were not infected.
- At least 27,000 heart health checks were missed or delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to modelling released by the Heart Foundation.
The shock deaths of cricketer Shane Warne and Senator Kimberley Kitching should serve as a wake-up call to Australians about the prevalence of heart disease, doctors say, as a study shows COVID-19 may increase the risk for what was already one of the nation’s biggest killers.
Modelling released by the Heart Foundation late last year found at least 27,000 Australians were likely to have missed their heart health checks during the coronavirus pandemic. The foundation warned this could potentially lead to a rise in preventable heart disease deaths in the next five years.
Gemma Figtree, professor of medicine at Sydney University, said the pandemic had also led to weight gain and worsened mental health, which were closely linked to cardiovascular risk.
Labor senator Kimberley Kitching died on Thursday from a suspected heart attack. Shane Warne died in Thailand on March 4. Both were 52.
“The death of these high-profile individuals is obviously very sad, but I also think it’s a stark reminder of the fact that we have not solved cardiovascular disease,” Dr Figtree said.
“We cannot afford to take our eye off the ball. This is our biggest killer.”
Cardiovascular doctors and researchers are trying to ascertain whether COVID-19 infections have long-term effects on the heart, with a major study published in Nature Medicine finding incidents of serious cardiac and cardiovascular problems were higher among people infected with the virus.
The study analysed the health records of more than 150,000 patients from the US Department of Veterans Affairs and found that COVID-19 patients were 63 per cent were more likely to have a heart attack and 52 per cent more likely to have a stroke than control groups.
Cardiologist Stephen Nicholls, from Monash University’s Victoria Heart Institute, said it was plausible that heart disease could result from a COVID-19 infection, but the science was still evolving.
“We know that COVID can cause inflammation of the heart muscle and the pericardium … it also can cause an increased clotting tendency,” he said.
Peter Barlis, a cardiologist at the Northern and St Vincent’s hospitals in Victoria, said patients suffering a heart attack while infected with COVID-19 tended to have worse outcomes, including a higher chance of clots and injury to the heart muscle.
However, he said the link between COVID-19 and cardiovascular disease should not be overstated, as there were still many unknowns. It was crucial to monitor the heart conditions of people with acute COVID-19 infections to study any long-term effects, he said.
According to the Heart Foundation, 18 people die of a heart attack in Australia each day.
In 2020, heart attacks accounted for one in 25 deaths. That year, 2800 women and about 3700 men died of a heart attack.
In 2018-2019, 157 people were admitted to hospital for a heart attack every day, or about 57,000 people in a year.
The known risk factors for heart disease include smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and genetics.
However, one in four people who had a heart attack did not have any of these risk factors, research by Dr Nicholls and Dr Figtree has found. Doctors are still trying to work out what leads to heart disease in this cohort.
Dr Nicholls said heart disease “may be silent” for some people, noting a quarter of people experiencing their first sign of a heart attack die before they reach hospital.
Cardiovascular disease can typically be prevented with a healthy diet, exercise, medication and effective management of cholesterol and blood pressure.
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