Overview of Heart Disease

What is it?

Heart Disease is a term which applies to conditions or complications which affect the heart.

There are a number of different Heart Diseases including:

Heart Failure, Cardiomyopathy, problems with rhythm (Cardiac Arrythmias), Ischaemic Heart Disease, Valvular Diseases, Pregnancy related conditions, Pulmonary Hypertension, Heart Attacks, Rheumatic Heart Disease, Takotsubo and Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection.

Heart Diseases can be both preventable and inherited, click on Risks for more information about risk factors.


It is estimated that 1.2 million Australians suffer from some form of Heart, Stroke or Vascular Disease. In Australia, the Northern Territory was estimated to have the lowest disease burden in the population (2.0%) in comparison to Tasmania (6.0%).

Ischaemic Heart Disease (IHD), was the leading cause of death in Australia for 2017, being responsible for 11.6 of deaths. Regarding Australian Women, IHD was the second leading cause of death, and Heart Diseases such as IHD, Heart Failure and Arrhythmias caused 4x more deaths than Breast Cancers.

Furthermore, women were more likely to die from Cardiac Arrhythmias than men. Furthermore, there were around 1.1million hospital admissions in Australia involving Heart Disease during 2015-16, accounting for around 11% of all admissions, with IHD the leading Heart disease (around 28%).

Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islanders

Around 1 in 8 (or 11%) Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander people will develop a Heart Disease in their lifetime, with this number increasing to 45% of the population over age 55.

Furthermore, females in this population experience higher rates of Heart Disease in comparison to males (14% vs 11%), with contributing factors including higher obesity rates for women and a higher population of women in older age groups.


(swipe to view more)

SymptomIHDAMICardiomyopathyHeart FailureArrhythmiasSCADTakotsubo Valvular DiseasesPulmonary HypertensionRheumatic Heart DiseaseAnginaPeri/postpartum Cardiomyopathy
Chest pain/tightnessxxxxxxxxxxxx
Flu-like Symptomsx
Swelling of Ankles and Feetxxxxxx
Shortness of Breathxxxxxxxxxxx
Abdominal Bloatingxxxx
Weight Gainxxx
Sleep Disturbancexxx
Indigestion and Heartburnx
Dizziness and/or faintingxxxxxxxxx
Fluttering in the Heartxxxxxx
Trouble Concentratingxx
Lack of AppetiteX
Pain in arms, shoulder or jawxxx

Risk Factors

As mentioned earlier, risk factors are broken down into two categories; preventable and inherited.

You may also hear these discussed as modifiable and non-modifiable.

Some of the modifiable risk factors for Heart Disease include:

  • Hypertension/high blood pressure: 2-3x more likely to occur in women and increases instance in age.
  • Smoking: more likely to cause harm in younger women, increasing the risk of clotting-diseases such as heart attack, especially if using the oral contraceptive pill.
  • Diabetes: diabetics are more likely to have plaque build-up in their coronary arteries (see Ischaemic Heart Disease), whilst diabetic women have a higher risk of a cardiac event than diabetic men.
  • High Cholesterol: increased cholesterol on the artery walls reduces the ability for blood to flow in the body and can lead to a cardiac event
  • Being Overweight: being overweight is linked to many other heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes.
  • An unhealthy diet: an unhealthy diet can contribute to higher cholesterol levels, especially is consuming a diet high in saturated fat and drinking alcohol
  • Being inactive: Inactivity can contribute to other preventable risk factors such as being overweight and high blood pressure.

Some of the non-modifiable risk factors for Heart Disease include:

  • Age: as you become older your risk for Heart Disease increases
  • Family History: your genetic pre-disposition can increase your risk of Heart Disease
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity: some ethnicities are at greater risk of Heart Disease

There are also some female-specific risk factors for Heart Disease

  • Pre-term deliveries in pregnancies: pregnancies that deliver before the 37-week mark are considered a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Hypertension disorders associated with pregnancy: if women suffer from specific pregnancy disorders which elevate blood pressure such as pre-eclampsia, is associated with an elevate risk of IHD in the future.
  • Gestational Diabetes: Gestational diabetes is seen as a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes Mellitus post-pregnancy, which is a risk factor linked to Heart Disease
  • Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer: Radiotherapy and its incidental exposure rate to radiation has been linked to an increased risk of IHD.

Prevention and Support

Follow the links below to find out more about how you can help prevent and support loved ones who have experienced a Heart Disease



Preventing Heart Disease is simpler than you think! The most basic of prevention strategies which women can employ are lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of developing Heart Disease. These include maintaining a healthy weight range, regularly exercise, eating a healthy and balanced diet as well as not smoking.


A support group is a good way to meet people who have a Heart Disease. Speaking to people who have a similar condition to you can help you understand as well as help with the healing process. Support groups are an excellent way to meet people and share your stories. The more you talk about things the easier it gets.


If you are struggling to care for a loved one who has a Heart Condition reach out discuss how you feel with someone today. To care for someone the carer needs to first look after themselves. If you need a helping hand or support speak up today. Your well being and health as a carer is just as important as your loved ones.


What you need to know

Heart Disease will affect women in different ways, depending on which disease they have, as well as their symptoms.

You may find that you experience symptoms such as feeling breathless, your feet may be swollen so it can be difficult to wear your favourite pair of shoes, you could even feel dizzy when standing up.

Refer to our symptom table as well as the section on your specific disease to see what sort of symptoms you can experience with your heart disease.

Once again, that does depend on your heart disease. Some women may require very little management such as taking a low dose medication, or there may be long-term lifestyle and medical implications.

For example, if your Heart Disease is Heart Failure, your doctor may recommend you restrict your daily fluid intake to help your heart pumping function.

Some women may require interventions such as an angiogram, pacemaker or open-heart surgery. We recommend you have a conversation with your doctor to find out more, as well as visit our pages on your type of Heart Disease.

If you are already diagnosed with any Heart Disease, we recommend speaking with your doctor and treating team to learn more about daily management. Research suggests that attending a Secondary Prevention Program for managing Heart Diseases can decrease the chance of being admitted to hospital, reduce your complications as well increase survival rates. One suggestion is cardiac rehabilitation, as these programs will teach you more about your disease, help you recover, empower you to make lifestyle changes to improve heart health as well as reduce your risk of further problems. Click here to find your nearest cardiac rehabilitation program.

Your doctor may have recommended that you take some new medications if you have Heart Disease. This could be an overwhelming time for you, especially as learn all about your new medications as well as any considerations for taking them. Apart from having a discussion with your doctor and pharmacist, NPS Medicinewise has some great information on medication management, medication disposal as well as risk factors. They also have some great information about medications for your heart, which can be found here.

It’s not too late to start looking after your heart health.

Here are some great and easy everyday strategies you can do to look after your heart health:

Don’t smoke, as quitting smoking can reduce your risk by 50% in one year. Quitline would be a great way to start your quitting smoking journey.

Stay active, 30 minutes per day of exercise, such as walking, can reduce your risk by 30% and delivers many positive health benefits. More information about exercise as well as a sample walking session can be found here.

Get some sleep, aim for 7-8 hours sleep and aim to try and unplug from your technology (e.g. iPad) one hour before bedtime. The Sleep Health Foundation has many great women’s focused sleep pages for all stages of your life such as your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, new mothers and menopause.

Eat healthy: ensure you watch portion sizes, eat healthy and nourishing foods such as: high fibre foods (including oats and legumes), two pieces of fruit and seven serves of vegetables, reduced salt, three serves of fish per week, reducing saturated fats (such as chicken with skin on, baked goods, fried foods) whilst choosing more lean proteins such as tofu and trimmed meats. The Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute has created some handy factsheets to help you choose correct portions, supermarket shopping, healthy snacks and eating out.

Relax: try and take some time out for yourself, keep connected with friends and family, perhaps try activities such as meditation to help manage your stress levels. Beyond Blue has a great page full of practical stress relieving tips, and it could be worth to try some meditations from apps such as Smiling Mind, Headspace and Calm.