The 'silent killers' that you may not know you're at risk of

A health assessment can help you identify conditions that would've otherwise gone undetected, Dr Mark Penny says.

Most visits to the doctor are for the assessment of specific problems or a review of pre-existing disease.

And although many GPs carry out pre-emptive medical assessments to varying degrees, they are often too busy, and most often, patients only visit their doctors when a problem arises.

But a comprehensive health assessment is specifically designed to proactively assess your health status, identify unrecognised disease and disease risk factors, and advise you on strategies to address them. 

Described as silent diseases, there are a number of potentially serious but common health conditions that are typically symptom-free until significant injury or organ damage has already occurred. By this stage, preventative action is less helpful because damage cannot be reversed.

And many of these diseases, when present in combination, have an additive effect on cardiovascular risk. These include hypertension, elevated lipids, diabetes, coronary artery disease and stroke, and chronic kidney disease.

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There are many early intervention strategies that can reduce the risk of developing these diseases or limiting their consequences but this requires early identification and intervention.

Hypertension

Over one-third of Australians have hypertension, and more than half of them are over 60.   

Hypertension is a major risk factor for stroke, coronary artery disease, heart failure, and chronic kidney disease. Identification and attention to lifestyle risk factors for hypertension can prevent or delay its onset and progression, and improve control of the condition.

Dyslipidaemia

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Elevated cholesterol and/or triglyceride levels are almost universally symptom-free but are a major risk factor for coronary artery disease and stroke. Much of the risk for elevated lipids is genetically determined but lifestyle factors may also significantly contribute, which is something you can control.

Diabetes

It’s estimated that there are over half a million Australians with undiagnosed Type-2 diabetes.

Diabetes can lead to both macro-vascular and microvascular disease. Macrovascular disease includes coronary artery disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease (in particular, narrowing of the arteries to the lower limbs, leading to increased risk of amputation).

Microvascular disease refers to diabetic damage to the eyes, with risk of blindness, kidneys, and nerves.

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Diabetes is also a major cause of kidney failure in Australia.

But the risk factors that you can control include genetic predisposition, diet, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle. Addressing the relevant lifestyle risk factors may prevent or even reverse the development of diabetes, or reduce the risk of developing serious complications.

Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease (in particular, coronary artery disease and stroke) is a leading cause of death in Australia, affecting more than four million Aussies and causing 45,000 deaths in 2015.

In men over 60, and for women over 75, cardiovascular disease is the main cause of death.

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There are no symptoms in the early stages of disease progression, when cholesterol plaque is laid down in the arteries, but coronary artery disease can lead to a heart attack, abnormal heart rhythm, heart failure and sudden cardiac death.

Much cardiovascular disease, and the associated deaths, are preventable. Risks factors that you can control include smoking, hypertension, dyslipidaemia, diabetes, obesity, sedentary lifestyles, and diet.

Chronic Kidney Disease

Of the more than 1.7 million Australians who are believed to have chronic kidney disease, only 10 per cent are aware of the condition. Most people with kidney disease have no symptoms until they have lost over 90 per cent of kidney function.

In addition to the risk of progression to end-stage kidney disease requiring dialysis and transplantation, kidney disease is an extraordinarily potent risk factor for coronary artery disease and cardiac death.

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The most common contributors to kidney disease are hypertension and diabetes, both conditions that can controlled.

A comprehensive health assessment gives an accurate picture of your current and possible future health. At Life First, which has outlets at St Vincent’s Clinic in Darlinghurst Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, doctors spend about 90 minutes with their patients, giving them ample time to address identified health issues.

Patients can then see their GP for follow-up of any identified problems that need ongoing assessment and management. We also forward our report on to the GP with the patient’s approval, and do follow-up three months after the initial consultation to monitor progress and provide ongoing support.

Have you ever had a total assessment of your health? Did you identify anything you hadn’t anticipated?