man clutching chest

Shane Warne’s sudden and unexpected death from a heart attack at the age of 52 has left many people rattled, with speculation it will lead to more blokes heading to their doctors for a checkup. It’s a much-needed move for many Australian men, with fewer than half of them aware of the factors that increase their risk of developing cardiovascular disease — our country’s biggest killer. However, a one-off trip to the doctor is not enough to address all the problems with Australian men’s health. What’s needed is better engagement in preventive care.

 

The fame effect

There’s undoubtedly a celebrity influence on people’s health attitudes and behaviours, as shown by large increases in screening for breast cancer after news reports of actress Angelina Jolie and singer Kylie Minogue’s health scares.

In the 1990s, Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive not only increased screening for infection but also altered people’s behaviour in ways that helped reduce their risk of infection[1]. It wasn’t just the widespread coverage of Magic’s diagnosis that caused these changes. The people whose health attitudes and behaviours were more likely to be affected by Magic’s story were those who felt they knew him[2].

The Australian public certainly feels as though they knew Shane Warne. Many have felt close enough to him to drop off pies, beers and cigarettes at his statue in the forecourt of the MCG in the days since his death. It’s a shame that the same larrikin behaviour that so endeared Warnie to so many Australians, which is celebrated by these tokens, might have contributed to his untimely death. Tobacco, alcohol and a poor diet are at the top of the list of risk factors for disease burden in Australian males[3]. Shane Warne’s death need not be in vain if it helps discourage others from taking up or continuing such unhealthy behaviours.

 

The importance of preventative care

One in 300 Australian men aged in their early 50s die each year in Australia. For women, that number is 1 in 525, meaning that the death rate for Australian men the same age as Shane Warne is 74% higher than for women.

In general, the health behaviours of men and women are different[4]. There’s an unhelpful misconception that “men don’t go to the doctor”; that’s just not true. Men are less likely than women to engage in preventive care, and they go to the doctor later in the course of the disease. Combined with their propensity for greater risk-taking, it’s not surprising that the health of Australian males lags behind that of women.

However, the uptake of heart health checks by Australian males under 55 years of age is higher than rates for females. Men in Warne’s age range have a 5.3% higher rate of heart health checks than women of the same age, according to Medicare data[5].

Booking an appointment to have your heart and general health checked is indisputably a good thing but it’s never too early (or too late) to start the habits that help (or quit that habits that hurt) your heart. The media reported that Warnie had chest pains in the days leading up to his death. That’s a pretty big, but late, warning sign that there’s a serious problem. A heart attack or stroke shouldn’t be the first step in diagnosing cardiovascular disease and a heart health check can find things before they get to that stage.

If you’re 45 years or older (30 years or older for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples), see your doctor for a Medicare-covered Heart Health Check. Your doctor will measure your blood pressure, order a blood test to check your cholesterol, ask you about lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise habits and whether you drink or smoke, and they’ll take your medical and family history. This information will help determine your heart health and how you can work with your GP to manage it.

While you’re there, talk to your doctor about what you can do to improve your overall health and wellbeing, and ask for help if you think you might need it.

You can find out your risk of heart attack or stroke by using the Heart Foundation’s Heart Age Calculator. For heart health information and support, call the Heart Foundation Helpline on 13 11 12. 

A/Prof Tim Moss
A/Prof Tim Moss

Associate Professor Tim Moss has PhD in physiology and more than 20-years’ experience as a biomedical research scientist. Tim stepped away from his successful academic career at the end of 2019, to apply his skills in turning complicated scientific and medical knowledge into information that all people can use to improve their health and well being.

Tim has written for crikey.com and Scientific American’s Observations blog, which is far more interesting than his authorship of over 150 academic publications. He has studied science communication at the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science in New York, and at the Department of Biological Engineering Communication Lab at MIT in Boston.

References

[1] Langer et al., 1992. Effect of Magic Johnson's HIV status on HIV-related attitudes and behaviors of an STD clinic population. AIDS education and prevention: official publication of the International Society for AIDS Education.

[2] Brown & Basil, 1995. Media Celebrities and Public Health: Responses to 'Magic' Johnson's HIV Disclosure and Its Impact on AIDS Risk and High-Risk Behaviors. Health Communication

[4] Salgado DM, Knowlton AL, Johnson BL. Men’s health-risk and protective behaviors: The effects of masculinity and masculine norms. Educational Publishing Foundation; 2019. p. 266-75.

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