Heart attacks, strokes, dementia and lung cancer have been the leading cause of death for people in the south-west in the past five years, new data reveals.
A report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare this week shows coronary heart disease was the biggest killer for people in the five south-west Local Government Areas between January 2013 and December 2017.
During that time there were 439 males and 325 females living in Warrnambool, Moyne, Southern Grampians, Colac-Otway, Glenelg and Corangamite who died of heart disease - making up over 13 per cent of all deaths across the south-west.
South West Health Care emergency physician Tim Baker said heart attack patients often waited too long to seek medical attention.
"Research conducted in this region shows that those living further away from the emergency department are waiting too long to act on their symptoms," he said.
"Particularly farmers, who wait at home to see whether their chest pain really is a heart attack or not. That is very risky because once your heart stops, if you're not right next to medical or paramedic staff then your chances of surviving are much lower."
Dr Baker said research showed men were more at risk of heart attacks but the number of heart disease deaths in south-west women was still high.
"What I take from this data is that although men are more at risk, there were still 325 women that died of heart disease," he said.
"That is a large number. Until a woman reaches menopause, the female hormones are a bit more protective of the heart but they are clearly still at risk. Women often don't present with the classic chest pain so they need to be very careful and aware so that they can seek help early."
There were 5749 reported deaths in the south-west in five years - 30 per cent of which occurred under the age of 75.
Other top deadly diseases included stroke, dementia, prostate cancer, breast cancer and lung diseases such as cancer, bronchitis and emphysema.
Dr Baker said poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, overuse of alcohol, poor diet, lack of physical activity and being overweight, were key contributors in the development and progression of preventable chronic diseases.
"When you ask most people about how to live a healthy life, they know what to do," he said.
"Eat a variety of foods, including adequate fruit and vegetables, don't smoke, don't drink too much alcohol and exercise.
"Everyone knows that but when life gets busy it is hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I certainly go through that too. It's important to try your best to remain healthy even when life gets busy.
"And it's good to get regular check ups. A lot of the things that lead to an early death can be modified if you see your doctor regularly. I am a doctor and I have my own general practitioner. You've got to have your own GP, everyone does."
In Glenelg, nearly six per cent of all deaths were a result of diabetes. The illness was ranked the third-most deadliest disease for women and fourth for men.
On Wednesday Portland District Health diabetes educator Vicki Barbary and PDH exercise physiologist Harry Beresford visited the Portland Men's Shed to discuss the different types of diabetes, the risk factors, warning signs and management prevention measures.
Ms Barbary said diabetes prevalence was increasing and more people were at risk of developing the condition.
"It's important to understand there are different types and recognise the symptoms of type one diabetes and the risk factors for developing type two," she said.
"We recommend you engage with your doctor, know your family history and know the risk factors and symptoms and understand that a key strategy in diabetes prevention and management is being active, healthy eating and managing your weight."
Meanwhile, in the Southern Grampians, accidental falls ranked the fifth highest cause of death for females, with 21 women losing their lives as a result of a fall in five years.
Across the south-west there were 147 men and women who died from accidental falls - making up 2.5 per cent of all reported deaths.
City's male suicide rate double the state
The suicide rate for Warrnambool men is nearly double the rest of the state, with more than two men dying from intentional self-harm every month.
The AIHW report revealed there were 25 male suicides, or 29.9 per 100,000 population, recorded in Warrnambool over the five years from 2013 to 2017.
Victoria's rate of male suicide was 15.5 per 100,000 people.
In Colac-Otway there were 14 suicide deaths of men, 11 in both Corangamite and Southern Grampians and seven in Moyne.
John Parkinson, a mental health nurse and representative of Warrnambool's Let's Talk foundation, said males were "historically terrible at withholding their feelings because of the expectation that they're bullet proof and can cope with anything".
"It is coming at a cost where people get to a point where they just cant cope and they make a choice which impacts devastatingly on their friends, their family and the wider community.
"Those affected never recover. And I think there is now quite a concern within our community on who is going to be next."
Mr Parkinson said only 15 per cent of men suffering from anxiety and depression sought help.
"The majority of people that do take their life by suicide have suffered an anxiety or depression disorder, whether it's currently or in the past," he said.
"But I also know people who are fully functioning, are completely getting on with their life and enjoying their family, and then all of a sudden they take their own life.
"We don't know exactly why that happens. My hypothesis is that something happens within their thoughts and in terms of solving a problem they can only think of one thing and that is to end their life and end their pain."
Mr Parkinson said the community needed to change the statistics so that people "can recognise when they aren't coping and seek help".
"That can be simple. It could be talking to someone that they feel will understand what they're going through and will support them through that time," he said.
"Nothing is forever. Change is ongoing."
Mr Parkinson said he hoped the Royal Commission into Victoria's mental health system would see "huge changes" in the future.
"It is currently really hard because there are different criteria for so many different funding streams," he said.
"I just wish we could package it it all up and have the autonomy and decision making power to actually do what this community needs because every community is slightly different.
"I also congratulate (former AFL player) Wayne Schwass who spoke at the Royal Commission and was very open when he said that his biggest regret was losing six years of his life because he wouldn't speak out. He was ashamed.
"Some people would much prefer cancer than have a mental illness because cancer is so much more accepted in the community. The goal of Let's Talk is if you have anxiety or depression you feel comfortable in talking about it."
Suicide did not make the top 20 list of causes for women's loss of life.
If you are troubled by this report, call Lifeline on 131 114.
There is a mental health crisis on the governments hands and the findings from the Royal Commission hope to close the gap.
While Victorians await these findings, the suicide rate for Warrnambool men is almost 50 per cent higher than the state's average.
Former Brierly mental health nurse and now assistant state secretary of Health and Community Services Union (HACSU) Paul Healey recently submitted his findings to the Royal Commission of the inconsistencies facing regional and rural Victorians.
"It's not fair your mental health treatment is based on your postcode," he said.
"Right now, where I'm standing in Melbourne there's three services within a 30 minute walk I could go to. In the country you could walk all day and never see one."
HACSU's major focus is the need for greater numbers of mental health workers and regional incentives with the bottom line being that the state government must invest in the mental health system. As it currently stands, mental health services are funded for 67 per cent of running costs which leads to diminishing services.
"Victoria has the lowest funded mental health services in Australia. When Brierly opened, Warrnambool had 200 beds for mental health - currently it has 20," Mr Healey said.
As Australia's suicide rate continues to rise and mental health concern grows in the south-west, Mr Healey hopes HACSU's recommendations can bring to life the severe gaps within the system.
"There should be community based services as towns get bigger," he said.
"We have to build on the existing funding and expertise and ensure we link with communities. We need to build a whole community around mental heath and not just rely on the system."
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