Leading Australian heart expert to improve Indigenous health

Professor Ben Freedman, Director of External Affairs at the Heart Research Institute and founder of AF-SCREEN International Collaboration is warning revision of guidelines to screen Aboriginal people for atrial fibrillation (AF), a leading cause of stroke, is needed to help prevent cardiovascular disease in this at-risk population.

Prof Freedman said research shows Indigenous Australians are experiencing catastrophic strokes at a much younger age than other Australians.

AF occurs more commonly in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at an earlier age, and when AF is found earlier, the risk of stroke is much higher than for non-Aboriginal people.

“We’re look­ing at intro­duc­ing life-sav­ing screen­ing from Aus­tralians aged over 65 but that’s too late for half of Abo­rig­i­nal suf­fer­ers. We’re call­ing on cul­tur­al­ly-spe­cif­ic screen­ing guide­lines that will pro­tect this at-risk pop­u­la­tion from an ear­li­er age,” Prof Freed­man said.

Prof Freedman is travelling to Armidale with a team led by Dr Kylie Gwynn on Monday May 23 to take part in a combined health screening program at the Armajun Aboriginal Health Service. The program will also be run in Inverell on Tuesday May 24.

The half a million Australians who unknowingly suffer from AF is projected to increase by 150 per cent over the next four decades – leading to an increase in stroke and heart failure.

“In AF, blood circulates in the heart in an abnormal way so there is a tendency for clots to develop. These clots can break off and travel to all areas of the body in the bloodstream, and if a clot blocks the brain artery, this can cause a stroke,” he said.

“AF-related strokes tend to be larger, more severe and harder to survive than strokes due to other causes.”

Dr Gwynne and Prof Freedman and the team will be using a handheld ECG device which they successfully trialled in Aboriginal health services around Australia previously. This time high blood pressure (hypertension) will also be targeted during May Measurement Month (MMM), as hypertension and AF are two of the most important preventable causes of stroke.

“We need to increase aware­ness of AF, as only 11 per cent of peo­ple over the age of 65 are being reg­u­lar­ly screened for AF by their GP despite it being a very sim­ple pulse check,” Prof Freed­man said.

“Cost isn’t a factor – anyone can afford a pulse check.”

Check your own pulse

To screen for AF, your doctor may do some tests including feeling your pulse or taking an electrocardiogram.

• While only your doctor can diagnose AF, you can keep an eye on your heart health by regularly checking your pulse.

• Your pulse can indicate how well your heart is working, how fast it beats, and its rhythm and strength. Keeping a record will help you notice if there is anything different or unusual with your results.

• A normal pulse, or resting heart rate, ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute. Your pulse should beat steadily and regularly. A pause or extra beat now and then is normal, but if you notice it is quite irregular, speak to your doctor.

Check your pulse 2022

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