Stopping a silent killer in its tracks

Familial Hypercholesterolaemia (often known as FH) is an inherited condition, which causes very high cholesterol levels and brings with it 20 times the risk of an early heart attack. And September 24 is WorldFH Awareness Day.

As many as 1 in 200 people have FH, making it one of the most common genetic disorders in the world. But because there are often no symptoms, many people are missing out on crucial early diagnosis and treatment.

Professor of Preventive Cardiology at Griffith’s School of Medicine, Professor Ian Hamilton-Craig is a leader in FH research, currently involving the Barossa Family Heart Study into FH issues.

“Up to 100,000 Australians have FH and, what is very worrying, it is estimated up to 90% of them have not been properly diagnosed,” Professor Hamilton-Craig said.

“These people are unaware of the inherited nature of their high cholesterol, and the potential danger it carries. If left untreated the risk of heart attack or even sudden death are high,” he said.

“Yet effective treatment to lower cholesterol lifelong is now readily available, and has been shown to reduce heart attack risk and improve survival. Each person diagnosed with FH canreduce their risk for heart disease by80% with earlyappropriate treatment andtherapy”.

These are signs that may be indicators that you and your family are at risk.

  • A family history of early heart attacks (men before 55 in men and women before 60 years) on one side of the family.
  • High cholesterol levels usually above 7.5 mmol/L (usual levels are 5 mmol/L)
  • Certain visible signs of high cholesterol such as yellowish fatty deposits on the skin around the elbows and knees (called xanthomas), and/or in the tendons especially of the knuckles (tendon xanthomas). Other possible signs are yellowish areas around the eyes (xanthelasmas) or a white arc near the colored part of the eye (corneal arcus).

Professor Hamilton-Craig stressed that because FH is inherited high cholesterol, it is not caused by diet and in many cases is treated more aggressively than lifestyle-induced high cholesterol.

“As FH is an inherited illness: if you have it, each of your first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children) has a 50% chance of also having it. So if we find and diagnose correct one FH patient, we can go on to check family members and where necessary begin treatment programs for them” he said.

“It is very important if you suspect you may have FH, consult your doctor and have a cholesterol test”.

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