Risks & causes

Last updated 13 February 2017 — Last reviewed 15 January 2014

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women in Australia with 90% of women having one risk factor. The causes including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, weight, depression and family history are discussed.

What is the risk?

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

Did you know?

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australian women
  • 90% of women in Australia have at least one risk factor for heart disease
  • Women are 4 times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer
  • 2/3 of women are not aware heart disease is such a risk for them

What are the causes?

Blood pressure measurementThere are many causes. Each cause is a factor in developing cardiovascular disease. The more factors a woman has in her life, the higher her risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

There are many familiar causes like being overweight, lack of physical activity, poor nutrition and smoking. Some causes we can't do much about – such as having a family history of cardiovascular disease. And there are some lesser known causes to consider such as depression and feeling isolated from loved ones and friends. The following list discusses the common causes of cardiovascular diseases.

Cause What happens What you can do
High blood pressure (hypertension)

Having consistently high blood pressure can:

  • damage artery walls, the heart and other organs
  • increase your risk of heart attack and stroke
Have an annual blood pressure check.
High total blood cholesterol
  • 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

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
  • 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

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

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

Activities that help to manage and lower the risk of diabetes include:

  • healthy diet
  • exercise
  • weight management
  • not smoking
  • managing your alcohol intake
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • 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
If you know you have this risk factor, it is important to take action to reduce other risk factors.
Excess weight & physical inactivity
  • Excess weight, especially around the stomach area, increases a woman's risk of developing cardiovascular disease and lack of physical activity makes it worse
  • 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]
Go to healthy living for help with weight management and increasing physical activity to combat this risk.
Family history 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. This is important information to tell your doctor.
Ethnic background Some ethnic groups including Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. 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 As women age beyond menopause, factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes become more common; increasing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. 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 Research shows having depression and feeling socially isolated increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.[5] More information about coping with depression is available here.

What to do next?

Knowing what causes cardiovascular disease is the first step. The next step is knowing how to reduce the risk of developing it. Healthy eating, weight management, physical activity and some supplements can help prevent cardiovascular disease and support your cardiovascular health.

The following list is a summary of the checks that are important for women's cardiovascular 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

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. www.heartfoundation.org.au

  5. Bunker SJ, Colquhoun DM, Esler MD, et al. Position statement 'Stress' and heart disease: psychosocial risk factors. MJA 2003 178(6): 272-276

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 January 2014.

You hold the missing piece...
JH Survey

Your opinion matters. Help shape women's health in Australia and tell us about the health information that you like, trust and need. All responses remain anonymous and un-identifiable.

Subscribe To our newsletters