Another heartfelt reminder to Canberrans

Nothing much about Weston Creek sets it apart from Canberra’s other urban districts, other perhaps than its compact size and its westerly aspect. Yet this region, whose population at the 2011 census was a reported 22,746, has Canberra’s highest incidence of cardiovascular disease. A geographical snapshot released this week by the National Heart Foundation, and based on the 2011-12 ABS Australian Health Survey, indicates that 32.2 per cent of Weston Creek residents suffer from diseases of the heart and blood vessels. The next worst performed district was South Canberra, 28.1 per cent of whose residents have CVD. Weston Creek was less prominent on other indicators, however. Tuggeranong, for example, topped the district for the highest percentage of people who smoke (17.6  per cent) or who are obese (30 per cent), while 38.1 per cent of Woden residents had high total cholesterol levels.

Small sample sizes can often lead to statistical aberrations, so perhaps Weston Creek residents need not feel too abashed at being labelled the cardiovascular disease centre of Canberra. But Canberrans can take little comfort from a wider reading of the statistics. The Heart Foundation found that the overall percentage of Territory residents with CVD (22.4 per cent) was higher than the national average of 21.5 per cent. And the percentage of Canberrans who are overweight was put at 37.1 per cent, some 1.8 percentage point higher than the Australian average. All of which seems to be an apparent repudiation of the widespread belief that Canberrans are among the healthiest people in the nation by virtue of their prosperity, their high education levels and their easy access to health services.

According to the Heart Foundation, Western Australia has the lowest percentage of people (18.6 per cent) with CVD. Indeed, only 16.8 per cent of Perth residents have CVD, making this the healthiest of all Australian cities, at least in terms of diseases of the circulatory system. By contrast, 27.6 per cent of Hobart residents are so afflicted. Statewide, 28 per cent of Tasmanians have CVD.

Lifestyle and social disadvantage are big contributors to heart disease, which goes partway to explaining why Tasmania – the most economically challenged and socially disadvantaged of all the states and territories – has such a high incidence of coronary disease and heart failure. Diet, too, is a factor: Tasmanians in the north-west and north-east of the island have traditionally consumed large amounts of animal fats; moreover, Tasmanians in rural areas make do with patchy primary healthcare services. There are  no such  factors, innate or otherwise, which might help explain the ACT’s predicament.

With a population under the national median age of 37.3 years, a compact jurisdiction to facilitate the  delivery of public health services, and excellent recreational and sporting facilities, the ACT ought to be a national leader in reducing rates of heart disease, not a plodder at the tail of the field. Yet, that is where it sits, despite consistent acknowledgement by successive governments that greater efforts need to be made.

For all that rhetoric, the ACT government made the surprising decision before last year’s budget to  scrap funding for an anti-obesity program aimed at primary school pupils run by former champion marathon runner Robert de Castella – despite an admission by Chief Minister and Minster for Health Katy Gallagher that targeting children was the key to fixing the problem.

Last October, Ms Gallagher launched an ambitious plan to reduce obesity rates to zero, focusing on strategies to make active and healthy lifestyle choices easier. Her observation that it will probably take a generation to reverse the statistics is correct. Health policy planners therefore need to focus on getting children – the most malleable sector of the population – to eat sensibly and exercise regularly. But efforts need to be directed too at convincing  adults that avoiding heart disease requires motivation and self-discipline – and that a tendency to rely on medical technology to correct its effects (while doing nothing much to avoid it in the first place) is a wanton misuse of scarce medical resources. As our age profile increases (and the Heart Foundation study identifies the median age of Weston Creek residents as the oldest of the city's seven districts), efforts to reduce rates of heart disease will need to be redoubled.