Overview of Cardiac Health Information

Aboriginal and Torres-strait Islander Cardiac Health in Perspective

  • Aboriginal life expectancy rates at the moment are still well-behind that of non-Aboriginal populations. For women, the life expectancy is 75.6 years, in comparison to 83.4 years for non-aboriginal women. Whilst this rate has improved, it is still well-behind Closing the Gap targets for 2031.
  • Chronic Diseases, such as heart disease, are responsible for around 64% of the total disease burden among Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander populations.
  • Currently, Ischaemic Heart Disease (also known as Coronary Artery Disease) is the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander populations.
  • The standardised death rate of Ischaemic Heart Disease in the Aboriginal population is almost double in comparison to non-Aboriginal populations.
  • The Years of Potential Life Lost (YPLL) is a measure of premature death from a particular cause. For Aboriginal populations, they have a 31.5 YPLL from Ischaemic Heart Disease, in comparison to non-Aboriginal populations.

The Cardiac Health Of Aboriginal And Torres-strait Islander Women

  • Whilst Aboriginal men have a higher burden of Heart Disease in comparison to women (68.3% to 41.7% respectively), women do have a higher proportion of some heart, stroke and vascular diseases.
  • These diseases include: heart valve disease, rheumatic heart disease, stroke, inflammatory cardiovascular disease, peripheral vascular disease and other types of cardiovascular disease.
  • Aboriginal women are more likely to present with a STEMI than Aboriginal men. A STEMI is a type of heart attack that happens when your whole coronary artery is blocked and causes significant heart muscle damage.
  • In Australia Indigenous women with valvular heart disease have the highest mortality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
  • Australia has one of the highest rates of Rheumatic Heart Disease in the world in the Indigenous communities and particularly for women, this treatable disease needs to be raised as an important public health issue with increased screening and resources.

Barriers To Heart Health For Aboriginal Women

  • GPs and Health professionals will speak less to their female Aboriginal patients about healthy lifestyle topics including: healthy eating, reducing or quitting smoking, maintaining moderate alcohol consumption and increasing physical activity levels.
  • Preventative care is an area that needs more emphasis for Aboriginal women, as they are more likely to be hospitalised for an admission that is preventable.
  • Only 51.6 per 100,000 doctors are Aboriginal women, which could be a barrier for Aboriginal women seeking to see an Aboriginal female practitioner for culturally appropriate care.
  • If care is not culturally appropriate, it is less likely that high quality healthcare can be provided for Aboriginal women.

Risk Factors

What are your risk factors for heart disease?

Environment: your living environment can contribute to some heart diseases such as ARF/RHD, as crowded living conditions can increase the chances of catching infections that affect your heart.

Diet: not eating a traditional diet is having a big impact on your health. Traditional foods high in protein and good fats have now been replaced with high fat, salt and sugary foods. 54% of Aboriginal people eat enough fruit every day and only 8% eat enough vegetables.

Exercise: Aboriginal women in both remote and non-remote regions were not getting enough exercise every week, with guidelines suggesting either 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily or 150 minutes per week.

Body weight: having a healthy body weight is an important protector against chronic diseases such as heart disease (see the know your numbers page). Whilst Aboriginal men are more likely to be overweight, Aboriginal women are more likely to be obese.

Smoking: smoking is an important risk factor for many chronic health conditions including heart disease. Aboriginal women report smoking rates at around 36%, which is less than Aboriginal men.

Alcohol: drinking is a big risk factor for many health conditions and social problems. Whilst Aboriginal populations are less likely to drink than non-Aboriginal populations, Aboriginal populations are more likely to experience harm when consuming alcohol. Aboriginal women are 3.4x more likely to be hospitalised from alcohol harm than non-Aboriginal women.

High cholesterol and high blood pressure: having higher cholesterol is a risk as extra fatty plaque lines the arteries of your heart (restricting blood flow). If your blood pressure is too high your heart must work extra hard to pump blood in the body.

Diabetes: having diabetes increases your risk of having heart problems in the future too, particularly if your diabetes is not managed and controlled.

Prevention strategies

What can clinicians do?

Heart Health Checks: encourage Aboriginal Women to have a Heart Health Check, which is now a medicare rebatable items for GPs and other medical practitioners. Women are eligible for this check from 30 years of age. The check can help you and your doctor establish your overall risk of heart disease.

Provide culturally appropriate care: there is much evidence to suggest that Aboriginal populations are more responsive and engaged with health professionals and healthcare settings if the care is respectful and understanding of Aboriginal culture and social issues.

Ensure you know your patient is Aboriginal or Torres-Strait Islander: this is important to identify to ensure the provision of appropriate health staff and services, such as Aboriginal Health Liaison Officers and Aboriginal Health Workers.

Work with Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander community groups, peak bodies, health organisations and associations: working with these groups will help coordinate and facilitate appropriate care for Aboriginal women.

What are some everyday prevention strategies for women?

Have a Heart Health Check: eligible Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander women are entitled to a rebatable Heart Health Check from 30 years of age

Have a yarn, start a conversation: have a yarn with women in your family and community about your heart health. The more we learn from each other the more we able to support each other in our heart health journeys.

Know your numbers: know what your optimal blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels should be. It would be also good to know what an optimal BMI is as well as a healthy weight range. Our page on knowing your numbers has all this great information.

Eat some healthy tucker: it is important to eat a good healthy diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, lean meats, fish and proteins. Here is a great video from St Vincent’s Healthcare about good and bad tucker.

Move around and exercise: it is important to get in about 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily, or 150 minutes per week. some handy tips could be taking the stairs instead of the escalator, getting off the bus a couple of stops early and walking, play some sports with your kids and go for a walk and have a yarn with your friends.

Quit smoking and drinking: quit the bad stuff, not only will your body feel better, but you will also save lots of money! The Aboriginal Quitline is a great place to start, or AOD Online has free online drug and alcohol counselling available 24 hours a day.