First, take a moment to put your hand to your heart. Just to the left of your breastbone, a little above the diaphragm. Thatís it. The steady beat that has accompanied you every moment of your life. Infinitely precious. Astonishingly strong. But also, vulnerable. More vulnerable than most of us like to think.

Which is why the Heart Foundation is launching a major campaign to alert Australians to the stark reality that, unless we act to protect ourselves and those we love, we risk falling victim to an opportunistic, indiscriminate killer. Heart disease.

Using the central image of a serial killer stalking unsuspecting victims, the campaign reminds us that heart disease is Australiaís number one killer. It urges us to pull together to fight a public enemy that each year claims around 18,500 Australian lives. Thatís 51 Australians every day Ė partners, parents, daughters, sons, friends Ė who wonít be with us tomorrow.

What is most heartbreaking is that these deaths are often foreseeable and preventable.

Complacency kills
Heart disease is what happens when our arteries get clogged by fatty material called plaque, reducing the blood flow to the heart. Many of its victims will die of a heart attack, which is one form of heart disease (on average 22 a day). Tens of thousands more will survive but may deal with ongoing health issues.

Right now, an estimated 430,000 Australians Ė including 40,000 aged under 55 Ė are living lives forever changed by heart attack. And every 10 minutes another one joins their ranks. Some will survive; some wonít.

Yet if you ask many of us about the risks we face, the response is too often denial. Sure, it happens. But not to me; not to the people I love.

Only half of Australians surveyed recognise heart disease as Australiaís most deadly illness Ė despite it having been our leading single cause of death for the past 70 years. Even among those who correctly identify it as our primary killer, only half believe heart disease could happen to them. Even fewer (22 per cent) realise it is one of the main causes of death for women.

Risk factors
In fact, most Australians are confused about the biggest risk factors underlying heart disease. Asked what puts a person at risk of a heart attack, 82 per cent focused on lifestyle factors such as poor diet, lack of exercise or high body mass. And itís true that each of these play a part Ė 80%, or four in five Aussie adults are not active enough; two in three are overweight or obese; and more than nine in ten do not meet dietary guidelines for healthy eating. But one of the most disturbing findings is that only 11 per cent of those surveyed could identify the most serious risks: the silent symptoms of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

Meanwhile, with nine in 10 Australians have at least one risk factor, itís not surprising that 1.4 million Australians wake each morning at high risk of having a heart attack or stroke; many with no idea they are in danger.

Yes, death rates may have been dropping now for more than 40 years, but heart disease still accounts for 12 per cent of Australian deaths.

It is with these grim statistics in mind that the Heart Foundation has launched its Serial Killer campaign. Bold and at times confronting, the campaign aims to shake us out of our complacency, alert us to the risks we face and remind us of the warning signs.

Most of all, it hopes to jolt us into action Ė because (and this is the good news) there are some remarkably simple steps we can each take to protect our heart health and improve our chances of not only surviving but thriving.

Hereís how easy it is
If youíre aged 35 to 75 with no known history of heart disease, you can hop on to the Heart Foundation website and find our new Heart Age Calculator. The online tool will help calculate your individual risk of heart attack or stroke, and then advise you on your next steps.

If youíre 45 or older (35-plus if youíre an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person) and havenít done so recently, be sure to book in to see your doctor for a heart health check. It wonít take long and can be done as part of a normal check-up. Donít wait for symptoms. Two of the biggest risk factors, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, are silent killers. The only way to find out if you have them is to see your doctor.

Pay attention also to your lifestyle. Quitting smoking is a great start. So is watching your diet and getting enough exercise.

Then tell a friend. We can never know for sure when a serial killer will strike, or who will be the next victim. But we know that this killer preys on the vulnerable. The better we look after ourselves and the more we support each other, the stronger we are. From that we can all take heart.