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Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women in Australia. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) includes diseases of the heart, veins and arteries. Risk factors for CVD include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, being overweight, depression and family history. For women, the risk of developing CVD increases significantly after menopause.

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What is the risk?

Many women are not aware of the high risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Did you know?

  • More than half a million women have cardiovascular disease
  • 90% of women in Australia have at least one risk factor for heart disease and 50% having two or more
  • Women are 3 times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer

Check your risk of heart disease today and get practical tips on how to improve your health

What are the causes?

There are many causes, which are factors, in developing cardiovascular disease. The more factors a woman has in her life, the higher her risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Causes that we can alter include being overweight, high blood pressure, high total cholesterol levels, raised blood glucose, lack of physical activity, poor diet, alcohol consumption and smoking.

Some causes we can’t do much about include age, having a family history of cardiovascular disease, and ethnic background. Other risk factors can be reduced through lifestyle choices.

The following list discusses the common causes of cardiovascular diseases and what you can do.

High blood pressure (hypertension)

What happens?

Having consistently high blood pressure can:

  • damage artery walls, the heart and other organs
  • increase your risk of heart attack and stroke

What can you do?

Have an annual blood pressure check.

High total blood cholesterol

What happens?

  • A certain amount of cholesterol is necessary for the normal functioning of the body, but too much of it is dangerous
  • If a blood cholesterol reading is high, it usually means LDL levels are high
  • 'Bad' (LDL) cholesterol can build up in arteries, narrowing them and making it harder for blood to flow through
  • Clogged arteries may result in a lack of oxygen to the heart (a heart attack) or to the brain (a stroke)
  • A study by the Baker Institute in Melbourne found that four out of five women aged 45-64 years had high 'bad' cholesterol[1]
  • Our own study at Jean Hailes[2] found many young women under the age of 40 have high cholesterol

What can you do?

Have an annual cholesterol check.

Activities that help to manage and lower cholesterol are:

  • healthy diet
  • exercise
  • weight management
  • not smoking
  • managing your alcohol intake
  • keeping your blood pressure at a normal level
  • medication

Smoking

What happens?

  • Smoking is one of the biggest causes of cardiovascular disease
  • Just a few cigarettes a day can damage the blood vessels and reduce the amount of oxygen available in our blood
  • Smoking causes artery walls to become 'stickier' and increases the risk of clots forming which can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
  • Women who both smoke and take the contraceptive pill are at an even greater risk of cardiovascular disease

What can you do?

If you need help to reduce or quit smoking, visit quit.org.au or call 13 7848.

Diabetes

What happens?

  • Diabetes causes damage to blood vessels making it a major factor in developing cardiovascular disease
  • Increased weight often accompanies type 2 diabetes, which is another factor that increases a woman's risk of developing cardiovascular disease

What can you do?

Activities that help to manage and lower cholesterol are:

  • healthy eating
  • being active
  • weight management
  • not smoking
  • managing your alcohol intake

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

What happens?

  • Women with PCOS are at increased risk of CVD and diabetes and therefore should have regular screening for risk factors
  • Parents of women with PCOS are more likely to suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure or stroke, according to a study by researchers at the University of Adelaide[3]
  • The research suggested mothers of women with PCOS are almost twice as likely to have high blood pressure, compared to mothers whose daughters do not have PCOS

What can you do?

If you know you have this risk factor, it is important to take action to reduce other risk factors.

Excess weight

What happens?

  • Excess weight, especially around the stomach area increases a woman's risk of developing cardiovascular disease
  • Adult women of Caucasian background have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease if their waist circumference measures more than 80cm and even greater risk if it is more than 88cm[4]

What can you do?

Go to healthy living for help with weight management to combat this risk.

Physical inactivity

What happens?

Lack of physical activity is one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease for women.

What can you do?

Go to healthy living for help with increasing physical activity to combat this risk.

Family history

What happens?

Being part of a family with a history of heart disease is an important indicator in whether a woman has an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

What can you do?

This is important information to tell your doctor.

Ethnic background

What happens?

Some ethnic groups including Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

What can you do?

Discuss with your doctor how your family background may influence your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and what you can do to reduce other risk factors.

Ageing and menopause

What happens?

As women age beyond menopause, factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes become more common, increasing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease

What can you do?

Women are entitled to a Medicare health check between the ages 45-49 at which they can discuss menopause and any increased risk they may have of developing cardiovascular disease.

Depression and feeling alone

What happens?

Research shows having depression and feeling socially isolated increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.[5]

What can you do?

More information about coping with depression is available here.

When to see your doctor?

Regular health checks are important for your cardiovascular health. Knowing the numbers of key health measures can help you to know if you need to make some changes for the benefit of your current and future health.

  • See your doctor for a discussion about your risks of developing cardiovascular disease including your family history and ethnic background
  • Have an annual blood pressure check
  • Have an annual blood test to measure your cholesterol
  • Test for diabetes by having your blood glucose checked
  • If you are a smoker discuss with your doctor all of the factors which affect your risk of developing cardiovascular disease
  • Discuss your weight with your doctor to determine if this is a risk factor for you
  • Ask your doctor for advice on healthy eating and regular exercise’
  • It’s important to tell your doctor about all the medication and supplements you are taking

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at February 2021.

References

  • 1
    Carrington, M and Stewart S. Australia's Cholesterol Crossroads: An analysis of 199,331 GP patient cholesterol records from 2004 to 2009. July 2010, Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute, Melbourne, Australia
  • 2
    Lombard C, Deeks A, Jolley D, Teede H. (2009). Preventing weight gain: the baseline weight related behaviors and delivery of a randomized controlled intervention in community based women, Journal: BMC Public Health, 9(1); 2
  • 3
    Davies et al. 'Intergenerational associations of chronic disease and polycystic ovary syndrome' PLoS ONE 2011 Oct 5;6(10)
  • 4
    Bunker SJ, Colquhoun DM, Esler MD, et al. Position statement 'Stress' and heart disease: psychosocial risk factors. MJA 2003 178(6): 272-276
  • 5
    Menopause and the Heart. Nkonde-Price C, Bender JR. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2015 Sep;44(3):559-64.
  • 6
    Scicchitano P, Dentamaro I, Carbonara R, et al. Cardiovascular Risk in Women With PCOS. Int J Endocrinol Metab. 2012;10(4):611-618.
Last updated: 12 October 2021 | Last reviewed: 08 February 2021

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