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Global study finds early treatment can reduce heart disease risk by a third -

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MARK COLVIN: A combination of medications given to a patient before they develop high risk triggers of heart disease can reduce their risk of developing a heart condition by more than a third.

That potentially life-saving finding comes from a global study, involving a team of Australian researchers, which looked at patients who had an intermediate, or medium, risk of heart attack or stroke.

Rachel Pupazzoni reports.

RACHEL PUPAZZONI: Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in Australia.

Until now, the medical world has been focused on treating people with a high risk of developing a heart disease.

The findings from this study show there are great benefits to treating people who have even just one contributing factor of developing a heart complication, such as having slightly higher blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

CHRISTOPHER REID: These findings fill a gap in the literature. We weren't sure prior to the Hope Three Study as to whether or not we got benefit from targeting those people at intermediate risk.

RACHEL PUPAZZONI: Professor Christopher Reid from Curtin University led the Australian team of five researchers.

The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that by combining statin drugs, medications that lower cholesterol, with anti-hypertensives that help to lower blood pressure, patients with intermediate risk levels significantly reduced their chance of developing a stroke or having a heart attack.

CHRISTOPHER REID: It was almost up to a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in new onset heart attack and stroke, and this is one of the first studies looking at the concept of a poly-pill or combination treatment directed towards those major risk factors for heart attacks and strokes and that's blood pressure and elevated lipid levels.

RACHEL PUPAZZONI: The research was broken into three studies, named Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation Three or HOPE-3 for short.

One study looked at lowering blood pressure, the second at lowering cholesterol and the third examined how patients responded to receiving both treatments at the same time.

More than 12,000 patients around the world took part in the five year study.

CHRISTOPHER REID: That's an important part about HOPE-3. This wasn't just done in one isolated population, there were nearly 30 odd countries around the world were involved.

We didn't see any difference - and this is important - whether people came from India or from China or from Australia. The effects were very similar across all different population groups and that's very important when we're talking about really a global strategy to reduce future heart attacks and strokes.

RACHEL PUPAZZONI: The Australian Heart Foundation helped fund the research.

The chief medical advisor of the Foundation, Professor Garry Jennings, says the findings are significant, but that it shouldn't necessarily lead to mass treatment for people with medium level risk factors.

GARRY JENNINGS: Some people will interpret this, as they have been for some time, as saying that there's a certain proportion of the population at a certain age with a certain level of risk that just should all be on blood pressure lowering and statin and asprin and other kinds of medications, it’s called the poly-pill approach.

We certainly wouldn't go that far based on this evidence.

RACHEL PUPAZZONI: Professor Jennings says no one study will cause an about turn in the way medical recommendations are made.

GARRY JENNINGS: I think what it will do is give people confidence about using these drugs, particularly statins, because that's always a question of the balance between risk and benefit and here it seems the benefits are such that the risks are not significant numerically at least in people in at least moderate risk.

RACHEL PUPAZZONI: For now, the advice from the foundation to keep physically active still remains the best prevention for heart disease.

GARRY JENNINGS: Our primary message was not going to change; that’s remain physically active, eat well, try and avoid putting on weight, get yourself checked for absolute risk and for diabetes and other things.

And that's going to give the best community in public health outcome that we can hope for.

MARK COLVIN: Professor Garry Jennings from the Heart Foundation ending Rachel Pupazzoni’s report.