The Heart Foundation's Heart Was In The Right Place With Those Shocking Ads

The Heart Foundation recently upset a lot of people through its shocking advertising campaign, called ‘Heartless Words’.

In it, the ads showed people telling loved ones that they didn’t care about them because they were dying of heart disease.

The ads struck a nerve, but not in the way that they had hoped. There was a general feeling amongst the public who were hurt by the implication that the parents or children that they had lost to heart disease didn’t love them. The Heart Foundation rightly heeded these sentiments, pulled the campaign and issued a heartfelt apology.

(Image: The Heart Foundation)

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The reasoning behind the campaign, according to the Heart Foundation, was to stir up emotions and to convince people to not only have a ‘Heart Health Check’, but also take steps to prevent heart disease.

Heart disease, in the form of heart attacks, is thought to be largely preventable. Prevention comes in the form of both a healthy lifestyle -- such as diet, exercise and not smoking -- and treating the underlying causes. High blood pressure and diabetes, both of which can be silent with minimal or no symptoms, have strong links to heart attacks down the track. Getting these diagnosed and treated is a vital step in preventing heart attacks.

As a heart surgeon, I have sat across from many people, both patients and their families, and delivered bad news. Sometimes that news is that they require heart surgery, sometimes it’s even worse. Part of my job has been to sit across from the people left behind, just like the ones in the now-defunct ads and say, "I’m sorry, we did everything we could but your mother didn’t make it."

Never in any of these moments have I thought that any of these people deserved this; never did I once hear anyone say that their loved one didn’t care about them.

But I have heard regret. I have heard a lot of wishes that Dad had gone to the doctor, or "Geez, doc, I wish I had never started smoking." And although this campaign missed the mark, it raises the very important question: how can we stop heart disease? How do we avert the pain, the suffering or the regret that occurs? Nobody ever deserves to be sick, nor does anyone deserve the pain that comes from having a relative suffer a serious illness or die from it. No matter what they did or didn’t do, it’s never earned.

(Image: Getty)

A large proportion of heart disease is thought to be preventable. Even if someone has the worst possible genetic make-up for having a heart attack, a healthy lifestyle can reduce their risk by half. With heart disease the leading cause of death in Australians, this equates to many lives that could be saved. Heart disease kills around two Australians an hour and in women, we are almost three times as likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer.

However, those so-called unhealthy behaviours that may contribute to heart disease don’t happen in a vacuum.

One of the biggest predictors of health is socioeconomic status, for example. While it’s easy to say that everyone should be exercising, the reality can be quite different for a lot of Australians. Exercise can be a big stretch for someone who works multiple jobs, who is the sole carer in a family, or perhaps for someone who lacks a safe environment to do so. It’s not that they don’t care about their health, it’s just that there are a lot of other factors at play.

And of course, even if someone lives the healthiest lifestyle possible, heart disease can still occur. I have seen competitive swimmers and teetotallers have heart attacks. And of course, there are a number of heart diseases that have absolutely nothing to do with lifestyle.

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We need to be thinking about our hearts more than we do now, that is for sure. But when it comes to promoting health and preventing disease, fear and shame can end up having the opposite effect.

Research has shown that the use of fear or shame in health campaigns is a tricky beast to tame. For some people, fear and shame may actually help them change behaviours or visit a doctor. Quitting smoking, for example, has become so anti-social that people may be compelled to quit for fear of being ostracised.

Even in the wake of this campaign, the Heart Foundation noted a surge in traffic to their ‘Heart Age Calculator’, which is designed to give a quick overview of their heart health.

Generally, though, trying to get people to change through fear or shame doesn’t work and can have the opposite effect on their health. We love putting our heads in the sand. Added to this, we also have to ask ourselves: is it ethically or morally right to scare people into getting their blood pressure checked? The answer, as we have seen in the past week, is no, it’s probably not the right way to go. Meaningful and long-lasting health change tends to happen best when we feel supported and receive compassion to do so.

(Image: Getty)

Here’s the thing then: What exactly do we do? I’m on the front line of the fight to save our hearts and I can say with absolute certainty that we do need to be compelled to act for our incredibly precious hearts. For both our own and for the hearts of the people we know and love. For years, we have been taking a 'gently, gently' approach and we are still not making the headway we need to. Whatever it is that is going to help us to be healthier, to be more aware of our hearts, we desperately need to tap into it because there are lives to be saved.

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The Heart Foundation is an organisation that fights hard for the health of Australians. And they care incredibly deeply about the cause they’re fighting for. The message was hurtful for a number of people and I am very grateful that they acknowledged this, apologised and are changing tact; to me, that  demonstrates integrity.

The question remains, though: what do we do now to protect our hearts?