Ben with his children

Ben's atherosclerosis story

A simple test could have saved Ben's life

When 47-year-old Ben Beale headed out for a run during a family holiday, his wife Sarah had no idea it was the last time she would see her beloved husband – a father of five.

While Ben was out, Sarah received the call every partner fears: “Your husband is receiving CPR, you need to make your way to emergency as fast as you can.”

Ben Beale

Ben would never return from his run.

After passing away from a heart attack, Ben’s family and friends were left grief-stricken and confused. How could a man at the peak of physical fitness be gone so suddenly?

Just a year earlier, after visiting his doctor several times to express concern about symptoms he was experiencing, Ben had been advised that he was at low risk of experiencing a coronary event in the next two to three years. A week before his death, Ben had been medically cleared for a charity boxing match.

Though Sarah was told it was a ‘one-off catastrophic event’, an autopsy revealed that Ben had a buildup of fat and cholesterol in his arteries – a condition known as atherosclerosis, which is the main cause of heart attack. Atherosclerosis is often referred to as a ‘silent killer’, as it can occur without symptoms.

The autopsy also showed that the father of five had suffered two or three heart attacks previously and that a portion of his heart was already dead.

Sarah says: “Ben was at the peak of his fitness and health and had no idea he was suffering from a disease which takes far too many lives.”
Ben with his wife Sarah and his family

The Institute’s Executive Director Professor Jason Kovacic, a world-leading atherosclerosis expert, looked into Ben’s medical history and identified the possibility that he had an increase in a cholesterol-related particle known as Lipoprotein(a), or 'Lp(a)', which raises the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Unlike LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol, which is often linked to lifestyle factors, levels of Lp(a) are determined by genetic factors.

“We have long wondered why healthy people with low cholesterol levels and seemingly no other major risk factors like smoking or diabetes can suffer heart attacks. But we now understand that high levels of Lp(a) could be responsible for many of these events.” Prof Kovacic says.

Professor Kovacic, along with other cardiologists is now calling for Lp(a) levels to be more widely tested across the population and for more awareness of the condition.

Three of Ben’s family members have since been identified with elevated Lp(a) and Ben’s older children have been tested and cleared.

While there is currently no cure for atherosclerosis, as well as Lp(a) scientists at the Institute have identified critical pathways that are key in driving this build-up of plaque that leads to the hardening of the arteries.

This world-first research has the potential to pave the way for new treatments that would effectively ‘deactivate’ these pathways before they can cause devastating damage like a heart attack, saving families like the Beale’s from experiencing the heartache of losing a loved one so young.

Ben’s memory lives on through the establishment of the Ben Beale Laboratory in Cardiovascular Research at the Institute’s hub based at the University of Western Australia.

Sarah Beale and family at the Ben Beale Laboratory launch

The Ben Beale Laboratory opened on 24 April 2022, marking the five-year anniversary of Ben’s passing.

Sarah says: “Partnering with Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute gives life to Ben, and gives meaning to him losing his life so young. Every person we can save through greater research makes Ben’s life count that much more. It means we can save another child from losing their father and we can give another father the ability to watch his children grow.”

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years