One in five Aussies unaware of single heart attack symptom

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Research paints a “very alarming” picture of heart attack awareness in Australia.

One in five Australian adults can’t name a single heart attack symptom, and only about half recall chest pain is a symptom, new research has found.

The survey of more than 100,000 adults also found awareness has dropped substantially over the last decade.

Lead author Associate Professor Janet Bray, cardiac arrest expert and critical care nurse at Monash University, described the findings as “very alarming”.

She said new approaches were needed to ensure people responded appropriately to heart attack symptoms and understood that time was critical.

“Every minute, more heart muscle dies and the chance of complications like cardiac arrest increases,” she said.

“Every Australian should be able to recognise heart attack symptoms and the need to respond quickly and call triple zero for an ambulance (000).” “

She said some people were “definitely” at risk of serious illness or death due to their lack of heart attack knowledge, and that awareness was unlikely to have improved in the time since study finished in 2020, as public health messaging has been focused on covid.

The Monash University-led research, published this month in the journal Heart, Lung and Circulation, analysed awareness during and following the Australian Heart Foundation’s Warning Signs Campaign, which ran from 2010 to 2013.

The campaign, which included television advertising, was designed to improve Australians’ awareness of heart attack symptoms and give them the confidence call an ambulance if symptoms were experienced.

The cross-sectional study compared awareness across 2010-2014, during and immediately after the campaign, and 2015-2020. More than 100,000 Australian adults were surveyed, to determine the ability of those aged 30-59 to name heart attack symptoms.

The researchers found awareness declined significantly in the years following the Warning Signs campaign. Awareness of chest pain as a heart attack symptom fell from 80% to 57% in 2020.

Over the same period, the proportion of respondents who could not name a single heart attack symptom increased from 4% to 20%.

“Awareness of heart attack symptoms has decreased in the years since the Warning Signs campaign in Australia, with one in five adults currently unable to name a single heart attack symptom,” the authors concluded.

“New approaches are needed to promote and sustain this knowledge, and to ensure people act appropriately and promptly if symptoms occur.”

Professor Bray told The Medical Republic that the research had led to a NHMRC-funded partnership between Monash University, the Heart Foundation, Ambulance Victoria and the Victorian Government Department of Health.

The Heart Matters trial aims to improve heart attack awareness in eight high-risk local government areas in Victoria. It will finish at the end of the month, with results expected later in the year.

“We know that it’s people who don’t speak English at home, our indigenous populations and men, and particularly people with lower levels of education,” said Professor Bray.

“So that’s who we’re really trying to target with this new intervention we’re trialling at the moment, which is a grassroots campaigning in regions that have high risk of heart attacks and low ambulance use when they have one. And we’re trying to reach those groups in these regions, to see if we can make an impact.”

She said it was hoped that the results would support a larger national rollout of the Heart Matters program, which would see educators directly targeting communities at risk and also running social media campaigns in tandem.

“We’ve had some incredible engagement from the community even though we started this just after lockdown,” she said.

“Somebody actually was having symptoms while they were receiving the talk and they had to call an ambulance. We’ve had a few good news stories too, especially in rural regions where people have attended the talks and either gone to their GP and been found to have an issue, or called an ambulance.”

The Heart Foundation’s manager of clinical evidence, Dr Amanda Buttery, who was also a co-author on the Heart, Lung and Circulation article, said community education sessions targeting groups with known low warning sign awareness and ambulance use made great sense.

“We know that the general public is sometimes unaware of symptoms of heart attack, and might dismiss it as indigestion or something else,” she told TMR.

“It’s important that we get the education right and public awareness campaigns are very good at doing that, and that’s why we’re trying this new approach with going into communities that we know have lower awareness of signs and also lower ambulance use, and really trying to focus on getting the messaging to those people.”

Dr Buttery said targeting the awareness campaign to groups known to be at higher risk when it came to awareness, and using social media were a move away from traditional, and often expensive campaigns that almost always involved television advertising.

“We’ve certainly evolved in terms of our approach and social media is one area we know that’s an important way people receive information,” she said.

“It’s just about adapting the information we need to get out there. We know that people read on websites, we know that people read on their phones a lot more and breaking it all down into bite-sized chunks of information is also important.”

Heart, Lung and Circulation 2023, online 16 February

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