There are a number of modifiable risk factors that you can change to better your heart health, and most are connected!


Smoking is the single largest preventable cause of death in Australia.

Approximately 40% of women who smoke die due to heart disease, stroke or blood vessel disease. Smokers have 2-4 times greater risk of developing heart disease compared to non-smokers.

Women who smoke and also take the contraceptive pill have a 10 times higher risk of having a heart attack.

What does smoking to do to your heart?

  • Causes the artery walls to narrow due to the build-up of fatty materials, increasing the risk of clots forming which can lead to a heart attack or stroke
  • Raises your blood pressure and speeds up your heart heart rate
  • Deprives the heart, brain and arteries of oxygen supply meaning your heart has to pump harder to supply the body with the oxygen it needs
  • Decreases tolerance to HDL (good) cholesterol.

Long and short-term effects of smoking

Long term:

  • Lung cancer
  • Cancers of the colon, mouth, throat, bladder, and cervix
  • Emphysema and bronchitis
  • Smoker’s cough
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Complications during pregnancy that can lead to an underweight baby or premature death in infancy
  • Osteoporosis
  • Digestive problems
  • Gum disease

Short term:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Worsening of asthma symptoms
  • Respiratory infection
  • Harm to pregnancy
  • Infertility
  • Impotence

Did you know?

Passive smoking (exposure to the cigarette smoke of others) increases the the risk of developing heart disease by 25-40%.

Giving up

When you give up smoking, the harmful effects caused by this deadly habit can be reversed very quickly. For more information on why and how to quit please see the lifestyle section of our website.

Alcohol intake

Be mindful of how much and how often you are consuming alcohol; as excessive consumption of alcohol can increase the risk of heart disease.

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to:

  • Weight gain (due to increased calories)
  • Increased blood pressure and blood lipids
  • Weakened heart muscle
  • Irregular heart beat

Limit your alcohol intake to no more than 2 standard drinks and aim to have at least two alcohol free days during the week to give your liver a rest! Periodically take a break from any alcohol for a week or more and you will notice many benefits including a better night’s sleep, improved mental health and increased energy levels.

High blood pressure

Your blood pressure is a measurement of how “hard” your heart is working to push blood around your body, through the blood vessels.

The more blood that your heart pumps and the narrower your blood vessels are, the higher your blood pressure will be. It can be a “silent” killer and if you are unaware of your blood pressure then it is worth having it checked by your GP.

How is blood pressure measured?

Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers:

Systolic pressure – the force when your heart contracts and pumps blood

Diastolic pressure – indicates the force used when your heart relaxes and fills with blood

Normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg. High blood pressure is systolic of 140 or higher and diastolic of 80 or higher.

The main 2 categories are high and low blood pressure


1 in 4 women has Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure. This means that your blood pressure is consistently higher than the recommended level (exceeding 140/80 mm Hg). This can put you at risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Significant lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure.


Hypotension, otherwise known as low blood pressure, is when your BP is less than 90/60 mm Hg. This indicates that pressure of your blood circulating around your body is inadequate and could mean that certain organs are not receiving enough blood. It can be just as serious as high blood pressure and should not be ignored.

You can assess your blood pressure risk using the tool developed by the American Heart Association.

High Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that circulates around the body in your blood. Lipoproteins carry cholesterol in the blood.

Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and the food you eat.

1 in 3 women have high blood cholesterol and this can increase the risk of heart disease.

There are two types of cholesterol

High-density lipoprotein (HDL)

  • Known as the “good” or “healthy” cholesterol.
  • HDL carries cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver to be eliminated.
  • The more HDL in your body the better protected you are against the buildup of plaque in your arteries.
  • Assists in the production of Vitamin D, hormones such as estrogen and digests fats.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL)

  • Known as the “bad” or “unhealthy” cholesterol.
  • High levels of LDL can cause a buildup of plaque on the artery walls causing them to narrow which can restrict blood flow that can result in having a heart attack or stroke..

Diabetes/Blood Sugar

Diabetes is a chronic condition in which the body can’t maintain healthy levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood.

Having diabetes more than triples a woman’s risk of having a heart attack and greatly increases the chances a heart attack will be fatal. For pre-menopausal women, having diabetes cancels the protective effects of hormones present in women and significantly increases the risk of heart disease.

Glucose is a form of sugar which is a main source of energy for our bodies. The pancreas produces a hormone called insulin which helps convert glucose into energy. For those with diabetes, insulin is no longer produced or cannot produce enough – causing sugars to build up in your blood.

Taking steps to find out what your blood sugar is and keeping it well-controlled is essential.

Types of Diabetes


Do you know your body fat content? If you think that you are overweight, then you put yourself at risk of having heart disease.

Being overweight will increase your blood pressure and increase your risk in developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes, arthritis and certain cancers.

In addition to that, it’s not just how much you weigh but where you carry your excess fat. Women who carry weight around their middle (belly fat) as opposed to their hips are twice as likely to develop heart disease.

Benefits of managing your weight:

  • Lower blood pressure and better management of high blood pressure
  • Improved quality of life
  • Improved mood and sleep
  • Improved lung function

By taking the steps to reduce your weight, you can reduce your risk of heart disease.

Physical inactivity

Are you physically active every day? Recent research indicates that “sitting is the new smoking”, and being physically inactive can double your risk of having heart disease.

To maintain health and reduce your risk of health problems, it is recommended that you engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days. Being active in small ways throughout the day can make a big difference. If you’re finding it hard to fit in 30 minutes of continuous activity in your day, try exercising in 10-minute bouts three times a day. This has shown to be as effective as 30 minutes of continuous exercise.

Benefits of physical activity:

  • Reduced risk of heart attack
  • Manage your weight better
  • Improved quality of life
  • Improved mood and sleep
  • Stronger bones, muscles and joints
  • Reduce anxiety and depression

Mental Health/Depression

Psychosocial health considers a number of mental illness such as anxiety and depression, and relates to an individual’s perceptions, emotions and behaviours.

Anxiety, depression and heart disease are common conditions that can often occur together. Research indicates that there is a relationship between these three conditions and it is important that they are addressed as they can impact on your recovery of you have had a cardiac event.

  • There is now evidence to show that depression can be as a big risk factor for heart disease as smoking or high blood pressure
  • Depression can also affect the recovery of people with heart disease and increase their risk of further problems
  • People with depression have also found to be more likely to smoke or to have diabetes
  • Those with depression (due to the effect it has on the individual) are generally poorer at taking their prescribed medication
  • Anxiety is also a risk factor for heart attacks and other heart-related conditions
  • Many people with anxiety also have depression
  • People who are socially isolated or do not have quality social support are also at greater risk of developing heart disease
  • Stressful life events such as losing a loved one or prolonged stress due to pressures at work are linked to increased risk of heart disease

More information about depression and mental health

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is an international nonprofit membership organization and a leader in education, training, and research for anxiety, depression and related disorders.

Hope For Depression Research Foundation

Hope For Depression Research Foundation (HDRF) is the leading non-profit focused solely on depression research, with an unprecedented Depression Research Road Map created and executed by our team of world renowned neuroscientists.

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

American Psychiatric Association – Help with Depression

Depression information resource page curated and updated by the APA for the community.

Black Dog Institute

The Black Dog Institute is an organisation dedicated to understanding, preventing, and treating mental illness.


Beyondblue provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live.

Mind Australia

Mind is one of Australia’s leading community-managed specialist mental health service providers, giving practical and motivational support that helps people to develop the skills they need to move on, thrive and improve the quality of their lives.


WayAhead is a non-government, community-based organisation and registered charity, working to educate people on mental health and wellbeing and link them to services and resources that improve their mental health throughout New South Wales.

Mental Health Foundation Australia

Mental Health Foundation Australia is an organisation that works to deepen understanding of the importance of mental wellbeing.

Mind United Kingdom

Mind is a charity that provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem.

Friends In Need

Friends in Need is a way for people affected by depression to meet online and in their local area.


Samaritans is an organisation that provides support to anyone who needs help through 201 branches across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

High Stress Levels

Stress is your mind and body’s response to any demand or stressor. Stress can actually be seen in a positive light, motivating us a little to get things done.

However, too much stress can become a danger and can take its toll on your wellbeing when there is too much for your body to manage.

Change is often the biggest cause of stress. What may be a stressful event for one person may not necessarily be stressful for another.

Those who are constantly stressed are at risk of adopting unhealthy behaviours in order to reduce stress levels. Examples include increasing their alcohol intake or smoking in order to relax, or eating more junk food because they are often short of time. All of these factors increase their risk of heart disease.