Risk Factors for Heart Disease

90% of Australians have at least one risk factor for heart disease. The more risk factors for coronary heart disease you have, the greater your chance of developing it.

The good news is that for most risk factors, you can do something about them.

Risks you can control
  • Smoking
  • Cholesterol
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Being inactive
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Unhealthy diet

Risks you can’t control
  • Age: As you get older, your risk of heart disease increases.
  • Gender: Men are at higher risk of heart disease. Women’s risk grows and may be equal to men after menopause.
  • Ethnic background: People of some origins (e.g. from the Indian sub-continent) have higher risk. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have more risk because of lifestyle factors.
  • Family history: If someone in your family has cardiovascular disease, speak to your doctor about your risk.


Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack compared with people who have never smoked. Stopping smoking is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease and it’s never too late to give up.

How does smoking damage your heart?

  • Smoking damages the lining of your arteries, leading to a build-up of fatty material (atheroma) which narrows the artery. This can cause angina, a heart attack or a stroke.
  • The carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood. This means your heart has to pump harder to supply the body with the oxygen it needs.
  • The nicotine in cigarettes stimulates your body to produce adrenaline, which makes your heart beat faster and raises your blood pressure, making your heart work harder.
  • Your blood is more likely to clot, which increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Second-hand smoke

When non-smokers breathe in second-hand smoke – also known as passive smoking – it can be harmful. Research shows that exposure to second hand tobacco smoke is a cause of heart disease in non-smokers, which means you could be harming the health of your children, partner and friends.

Talk to your doctor or health practitioner about helping you to give up smoking. You can also call Quitline (13 7848) or visit the Quit website.


High blood pressure is often termed the ‘silent killer’ as it usually doesn’t present any symptoms. The only way to know whether you have high blood pressure is to have it measured regularly.

Blood pressure is the pressure of the blood in the arteries. This pressure enables the heart to pump blood around the body.

In the process known as circulation, the right side of the heart collects blood that has been used by the body, and pumps it into the lungs, to be re-oxygenated. The left side of the heart then pumps this oxygen-rich blood back through the body.

Arteries carry oxygenated blood to the body, and veinscarry the used blood back to the heart. The arteries are strong and elastic. This enables them to handle the pressure of the blood being pumped through them.

How is blood pressure measured?

Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers, e.g. 120/70 (‘120 over 70′).

  • Systolic pressure is the higher number. This is the pressure in the arteries as the heart squeezes blood out during a contraction.
  • Diastolic pressure is the lower number. This is the pressure in the arteries as the heart relaxes before the next beat.

What is normal blood pressure?

Normal blood pressure limits are between 100/60 and 130/80.

Acceptable blood pressure falls within a range, rather than being a specific pair of numbers. Blood pressure varies according to the body’s needs and activities.

What is high blood pressure?

High blood pressure – or hypertension – means that your blood pressure is consistently higher than the recommended level. High blood pressure is not usually something that you can feel or notice, but over time if it is not treated, your heart may become enlarged making your heart pump less effectively.  This can lead to heart failure.

Having high blood pressure increases your chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

It’s very important to get your blood pressure checked regularly, and if it’s persistently high it needs to be controlled. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

What can I do to reduce my blood pressure?

If you are diagnosed with high blood, your doctor is likely to encourage you to make some lifestyle changes to help reduce it. This may include increasing your physical activity, losing weight, reducing the salt in your diet, cutting down on alcohol and eating a balanced, healthy diet.

If your blood pressure is very high or these lifestyle changes do not reduce it enough, your doctor is likely to prescribe you medication to control it and to reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

If you are already being treated for high blood pressure and have any concerns about it, you should make an appointment with your GP. Do not stop taking your medication unless your GP tells you to.


Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood that comes from two sources: your body and food. Your body makes the required cholesterol it needs, but it can also be found in food from animal sources. Excess cholesterol can form plaque between layers of artery walls, making it harder for your heart to circulate blood, increasing you risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases.

You may not feel any signs of having high cholesterol, it is therefore important to have your cholesterol check regularly.

Types of Cholesterol

There are several different types of cholesterol.

  • High density lipoprotein (HDL) is often called ‘good’ cholesterol. It helps carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it is processed.
  • Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is known as ‘bad’ cholesterol. Too much may leave fatty deposits (plaque) on the lining of arteries, causing blockages and leading to cardiovascular disease.

Lowering your LDL can significantly decrease your risk of developing heart disease or a stroke.

What causes high cholesterol?

There is no one single cause for high cholesterol. Many different factors can contribute to high cholesterol such as:

  • eating a diet that is high in saturated fat
  • smoking
  • lack of physical activity
  • high alcohol intake, or
  • kidney or liver disease
  • having an inherited condition known as hypercholesterolaemia 

How can I lower my cholesterol levels?

Making healthy eating choices and increasing exercise are important first steps in improving your cholesterol. For some people, cholesterol-lowering medication may also be needed to reduce the risk for heart attack.


Diabetes is Australia’s fastest growing chronic disease. 280 Australians develop diabetes every day. That’s one person every five minutes.

Diabetes is a disease marked by high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. There is no cure, but symptoms can be controlled. If you have diabetes, you are more likely to develop coronary heart disease than someone without diabetes.

Types of diabetes

There are 2 types of diabetes. Type 1 and Type 2.

Type two diabetes is more common and tends to develop gradually as people get older – usually after the age of 40.

It’s closely linked with:

  • being overweight
  • being physically inactive
  • a family history of diabetes.

What can I do to reduce my risk of developing diabetes?

You can greatly reduce your risk of developing Type two diabetes by controlling your weight and doing regular physical activity.

The great news is that doing these things will also make you less likely to develop other cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease and stroke – as well as being great for your general mental and physical wellbeing.

How can I protect my heart if I already have diabetes?

If you have diabetes, it’s very important to make sure that you control your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels to help reduce your risk of coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases.

To do this you can:

  • do more physical activity
  • eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • control your weight, and
  • give up smoking.

If you are diagnosed with diabetes, you may also need to take a cholesterol-lowering medicine such as statins to help protect your heart. For more information about Diabetes visit the Diabetes Australia website.


Two in every three adult Australians aged over 18 and over are either sedentary or have low levels of exercise.

Being inactive increases your chance of heart disease – second only to smoking as a risk factor. If you are inactive, you are almost twice as likely to suffer coronary heart disease, compared to those who get enough exercise. It can also help you control your weight, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and improve your mental health – helping you to look and feel great.

How much activity to aim for?

Australia’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines for adults recommend:

  • Any physical activity is better than none. It’s fine to start with a little, and build up.
  • Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.
  • Aim to accumulate 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous intensity physical activity each week.
  • Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.
  • An easy way to achieve this is to:
    • Do 30-45 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (like brisk walking) most days of the week. You can build up activity in shorter bouts, like in three 10-minute walks.
    • Do muscle-toning activities twice a week. This could be body weight exercises (e.g. push-ups, squats or lunges), tasks involving lifting, carrying or digging (e.g. gardening or carrying shopping), or weights or other resistance training (e.g. a gym based weight training program).


In Australia, 1 in 4 children and 2 in 3 adults are overweight or obese.

Carrying excess body fat can have a serious impact on your health. It’s a risk factor for heart disease, and it can also increase your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, arthritis, and certain types of cancer.

Fortunately, this is a risk factor you can control and change!

How does my weight affect my health?

Research shows that being overweight or obese can:

  • raise your blood cholesterol levels
  • increase your blood pressure
  • increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Because these are risk factors for coronary heart disease, your weight can have a big impact on your long-term health.

Even if you don’t have any of these conditions, it’s important to keep to a healthy weight so you don’t develop them in future.

What is a healthy weight?

Everyone is different, and therefore one person’s healthy weight may not be healthy for another.

The best way to find out if your weight is a health risk is to check with your doctor. These tools from The Heart Foundation Australia can also serve as a guide:

To learn more about heart health visit our Heart Hub for more information.


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian Health Survey 2014/15.
  2. Diabetes Australia
  3. 2011–12 Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Health Survey