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Are you at risk of heart disease?

Your heart


Are you at risk of heart disease?

There is no single cause for any one heart condition, but there are risk factors that increase your chance of developing one. 

Key takeaways

3 min read

  • It’s never too early or late to manage your risk of heart disease and improve your heart health 
  • You can help reduce your risk of heart disease by making positive changes to your lifestyle 
  • Some risk factors for heart disease are beyond your control, such as: age, gender, ethnicity, and family history  
  • High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes can increase your chance of developing heart disease
  • Get a Heart Health Check with your GP to find out your risk of heart disease and what you can do to prevent it.

There’s no one cause for heart disease. However, there are risk factors that increase your chance of developing it. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop heart disease. More than half of Australian adults have three or more risk factors for heart disease. Yet many people don’t know they’re at risk.

Preventing heart disease starts with knowing your risk factors and making positive lifestyle changes to lower your risk. Most heart attacks and strokes can be prevented with healthy choices. This can include eating a heart-healthy diet, being active and smoke-free.  

Understand your risks

You have the power to significantly lower your risk of heart disease. Small, healthy changes to your daily routine can have an important impact on your heart health. Discover your lifestyle risk factors and the steps you can take to lower your risk.


Smoking damages the blood vessels to your heart, brain and other parts of your body. This makes you:

  • between two to five times more likely to die of a heart attack

  • two times more likely to die of stroke, and

  • Three times more likely to die from sudden cardiac arrest.  

Therefore, quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do for the health of your heart and the people around you.

The good news is that the risk to your heart health goes down a lot after you stop smoking. More smokers have successfully quit than currently smoke. Many smokers quit unassisted. But if you find it hard to quit, there’s a lot of support available. This includes calling Quitline on 13 78 48, or talking to your doctor about medications that may help you quit.

Find out more about smoking and your heart and discover practical tips to stay smoke-free.

Unhealthy diet  

The foods you eat can affect your heart health. What you eat and how much can impact other risk factors for heart disease, such as your cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and weight. A heart-healthy diet is one of the best ways of reducing your risk of heart disease.

Eating in a heart-healthy way isn’t about individual nutrients, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, or tough diets. It’s about sustainable changes and the choices you make over time. A heart-healthy diet is low in unhealthy fats, salt and added sugar, and rich in wholegrains, fibre, vitamins, antioxidants and healthy fats.  

Read more about how to eat a heart-healthy diet and download our healthy recipes.

Being inactive   

People who aren’t active enough have a higher risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Did you know over 80 per cent of Australian adults aren’t physically active enough.

Doing regular physical activity or exercise often can cut your risk of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. Keeping active also helps to control heart disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight.

Being active will also help you feel more energetic, have stronger bones and muscles, and feel happier and more relaxed.

Start with small, realistic goals and work your way up to the recommended 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (for example, brisk walking) most days of the week.

Read more tips to be active every day now.

Unhealthy weight  

Being overweight or obese can lead to many health conditions and increase your chances of developing heart disease. It can lead to:

  • High blood pressure

  • High cholesterol

  • Type 2 diabetes, and

  • A fatty build-up in your arteries.

These conditions increase your chances of having a heart attack. Two-thirds of Australian adults are overweight or obese.

Achieving a healthy weight is an important step in improving your heart, health and wellbeing. It can help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower your risk of developing heart disease.

Aim for a waist size of less than 80cm for women and 94cm or less for men. We all know that losing weight can be hard. It takes time and effort. The best way to lose weight is by slowly changing your eating habits and being more active. Start with small changes to your diet, aim for realistic goals and build-up from there.

Learn more about assessing your weight and tips to maintaining a healthy weight now.


Heavy drinking or binge drinking can increase your chances of developing heart disease. Drinking a lot over the long term can increase your heart rate, blood pressure, weaken your heart muscle and increase the level of some fats in your blood (triglycerides).

If you do drink, you should limit yourself to no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day. The less you choose to drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm. One standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol. All packaged alcoholic drinks in Australia must show the number of standard drinks they contain. If you’re unsure how much you’re drinking, you can find this information on the label. You can try lowering the amount of alcohol you drink by alternating with low kilojoule drinks, such as plain mineral water, light beer or low alcohol options.

Some medical conditions increase your risk of heart disease, but most of them can be managed with medication and making healthy lifestyle choices.

High blood pressure  

Blood pressure is the pressure of your blood on the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps it around your body. Your blood pressure naturally goes up and down all the time, adjusting to your heart’s needs depending on what you’re doing.

High blood pressure is when your blood pressure is often higher than normal. It’s one of the main risk factors for heart disease. One-third of Australian adults are living with high blood pressure.

You can’t feel high blood pressure. You can have this condition without knowing, which is why it’s important to get it checked by a health professional regularly. High blood pressure can be controlled by making positive changes to your lifestyle. Your doctor may recommend medications.

Find out more about managing high blood pressure now.

High cholesterol  

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that moves around your body in the blood. Some cholesterol is essential for the normal functioning of your body. However, high cholesterol is when you have too much cholesterol in your blood and this is one of the major risk factors for heart disease.

Too much bad cholesterol can be harmful because it sticks to the walls of your arteries and causes a build-up of fatty plaques. This build-up can create blockages in your arteries and increase your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. Making positive changes to your lifestyle (for example, your diet), can help lower your cholesterol. In some cases, your doctor may recommend medication to help you control your high cholesterol.

Learn more about cholesterol now.


People with diabetes are up to four times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. They  often develop heart disease younger, compared to people without diabetes. Over time, high blood sugar levels from diabetes can damage blood vessels in the heart and make them more likely to develop fatty deposits. The longer you have diabetes, the higher the chances are that you will develop heart disease.

People with diabetes are also more likely to have other risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or being overweight. Managing your diabetes or risk of diabetes is important to prevent heart disease. This can involve making positive changes to your diet and physical activity, and often involves taking medication to lower your blood sugar levels.

Learn more about diabetes and heart disease

Mental health  

Mental health includes conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as more severe illnesses such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

Mental health can include other factors such as:

  • Social isolation

  • Not having enough social support, and

  • Work stress.   

Research shows some mental health conditions may increase your risk of developing heart disease. Depression can increase your risk of developing heart disease just as much as smoking and obesity. The better your mental health, the more likely you are to make healthy choices, such as being active and eating well.

Managing your mental health is important in managing your heart health. Good mental health means looking after your mental and emotional well-being and managing your symptoms.

Read more about mental health and heart disease and where you can get support.

Some risk factors for heart disease are beyond your control, such as your age. The older you are, the higher your risk of heart disease.  

Family history of heart disease 

If you have a close family member (such as a parent or sibling) who has had a heart attack or stroke before the age of 60, you are at increased risk of heart disease. To know your family history, ask your family if anyone has been diagnosed with heart disease, and at what age.

Having a family history of heart disease isn’t the same as having a genetic heart condition. It’s more complex than that and may involve a blend of shared genes and environments. Just because you have a family history of heart disease doesn’t mean you’ll have the same health issues. But you should do your best to change your lifestyle risk factors to help reduce your chances of heart disease.

Read more about family history and heart disease.

Female-specific risk factors  

Women and men share largely the same risk factors for heart disease. This includes lifestyle risk factors, such as not getting enough physical activity, eating an unhealthy diet and being overweight or obese. But there are some risk factors that are only specific to women.

Complications during pregnancy, such as high blood pressure, or preeclampsia and gestational diabetes increase a woman’s risk of heart disease later in life. A woman’s risk of heart disease also increases after menopause, due partly to changes in cholesterol, blood pressure and metabolism.

See more about heart disease in women now.

Ethnic background 

Your ethnic background can increase your risk of developing heart disease. People of some origins – such as those of South Asian, Middle Eastern, Maori or Pacific Islander descent – have an increased risk of developing heart disease.

The burden of heart disease is high in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. While the rate fatal heart disease in this population has decreased significantly over the years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are still 50% more likely to die from heart disease compared to non-Indigenous Australians. Heart-related events and deaths in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples occur, on average, around 10 to 20 years earlier, compared to non-Indigenous Australians.

Read more about heart disease in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples now.

Social environment 

Your heart health is impacted by your living and working conditions, which form part of your social environment. People living in low socioeconomic areas are at higher risk of having a heart attack or dying due to heart disease. Some risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, have been linked to social exclusion and limited access to employment, health services or healthy foods.

Circular graphic with 10 steps to protect your heart: 1. Eat a balanced diet. 2. Exercise regularly. 3. Manage stress. 4. Get enough sleep. 5. Avoid smoking. 6. Limit alcohol intake. 7. Control blood pressure. 8. Maintain a healthy weight. 9. Monitor cholesterol levels. 10. Stay hydrated.

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Last updated17 January 2024