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Cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a term that includes heart disease, stroke and blood vessel disease.

Learn more about CVD, including symptoms, causes, risk factors and how the disease differs between women and men.

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What is CVD?

There are three main types of cardiovascular disease (CVD):

  • stroke – when blood supply to the brain is cut off
  • coronary heart disease – when fatty plaque on the artery walls (atherosclerosis) blocks blood flow to the heart
  • heart attack – when an artery to the heart becomes completely blocked and stops blood flow to the heart muscle.

Other types of cardiovascular disease include:

  • aneurysm – a widening or bulge in an artery that can burst
  • angina – temporary chest pain caused by lack of blood flow and oxygen to the heart
  • atherosclerosis – a build-up of fatty plaque on the walls of the arteries
  • deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – a clot in the deep veins of the body
  • high blood pressure (hypertension) – blood pushes against artery walls with a strong force.

CVD in women

Many people think that heart disease is a men’s health issue, but it’s not. More than half a million women in Australia are diagnosed with CVD each year. In 2021, 21,000 women died from CVD.

Symptoms and risk factors can also be different in women.

Symptoms of heart attack

Chest pain is the most common symptom of heart attack for men and women. This can also feel like pressure, tightness or heaviness in your chest.

You may also have:

  • shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • indigestion
  • nausea (feeling unwell)
  • vomiting
  • a cold sweat
  • dizziness
  • tiredness.

Symptoms of heart attack in women

Symptoms of heart attack in women can be different to men. Women are more likely to have symptoms that don’t involve chest pain. For example, they may have pain in their:

  • neck
  • jaw
  • arms
  • back
  • shoulders.

If you have symptoms of heart attack, get help straight away or call 000.

Signs of a stroke

A stroke is when blood supply to the brain is interrupted. Signs of a stroke include:

  • blurred vision
  • numbness
  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • trouble speaking or understanding
  • loss of consciousness.

The National Stroke Foundation of Australia has created the ‘FAST test’ to check if someone is having a stroke:

  • Face – Check their face – has the mouth dropped?
  • Arms – Are they unable to lift both arms?
  • Speech – Is their speech slurred or confused?
  • Time – Time is critical. Call 000 if any of these signs are present.

You can learn more about stroke on the Stroke Foundation website.

Risk factors of CVD

There are many factors that can increase your risk of developing CVD. The more factors you have, the higher your risk.

You can’t change some risk factors, such as age, gender, ethnic background and family history. But you can reduce the risk of CVD with a healthy lifestyle (i.e. a healthy diet and regular physical activity).

Risk factors of CVD in women

Women may have other risk factors of CVD. For example:

  • autoimmune diseases – women with conditions such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis have a higher risk of heart disease
  • polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – women with PCOS are more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and have a heavier weight, all of which increase the risk of CVD
  • oral contraception – the oral contraceptive pill may increase your risk of blood clots or other CVD.
  • pregnancy complications – including pre-eclampsia, premature birth, increased blood pressure during pregnancy and gestational diabetes.

Risk factors may also include:

  • starting periods at a young age
  • having a history of absent or irregular periods
  • previous breast cancer treatments.

Some women with CVD don’t have any risk factors.

Learn more about risk factors for women on the Heart Foundation website.

Learn more about pregnancy complications and CVD on the Heart Foundation website.

Menopause and CVD

People can develop cardiovascular disease at any age, but women’s risk increases after menopause. As women age and their oestrogen levels fall, their risk of CVD increases. For example, women may have:

  • higher blood pressure
  • higher total cholesterol
  • higher ‘bad’ cholesterol
  • lower ‘good’ cholesterol
  • higher blood fats such as triglycerides.

Women who gain excess weight around the stomach at this time may also have an increased risk of CVD.

Some studies suggest that women who have premature or early menopause may have a higher risk of developing CVD compared with women who reach menopause at the expected age.

Some research suggests that menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) may reduce the risk of CVD.

It’s common for blood pressure to increase with age, so it’s important to have it checked regularly – especially after menopause.

The gender gap

There are many reasons why women are at a disadvantage with CVD.

In Australia, more women die from heart attack than men, usually because they don’t know the risk factors and symptoms and may delay getting help. And women are less likely to go to hospital when they have symptoms of a heart attack.

Women are 50% more likely to get the wrong diagnosis when they have a heart attack, and they have a 70% higher risk of dying.

Research suggests that women who have symptoms of CVD are not treated as quickly as men and are less likely to get the same level of care that men do.

There hasn’t been much research into how heart disease affects women. Women are also under-represented in clinical trials. As a result, women are often diagnosed and treated for CVD based on data about men.

It’s important to understand female-related risks and symptoms of CVD, and to take control of your heart health by asking your doctor about heart health checks.

This con­tent has been reviewed by a group of med­ical sub­ject mat­ter experts, in accor­dance with Jean Hailes pol­i­cy.

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Last updated: 
05 February 2024
Last reviewed: 
12 November 2023

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