Food & Nutrition

Risk factors for an unhealthy heart

Heart disease risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure (hypertension), type 2 diabetes, excess weight and inactivity. The good news is you can decrease your risk by following a healthier lifestyle.
Published 31 May 2018 | Updated 13 May 2024

The heart – everybody has one and it’s not known as a vital organ for nothing. The heart pumps oxygen and nutrients around your body so everything else can function. Therefore, looking after your heart and arteries should be a top priority and one way you can do this is to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle.

Sadly, heart disease remains a major killer in our society. On average, one in five Australian adults have heart disease and one Australian dies as a result of heart disease every 12 minutes.

Many people think that heart disease means having a life-threatening heart attack. However, in correct medical terms, heart (or cardiovascular) disease refers to all diseases of the heart and blood vessels, including stroke, arrhythmia and heart failure.

The most common type of cardiovascular disease is coronary heart disease, which involves the small blood vessels (arteries) that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. If these coronary arteries start to become blocked or narrowed a person may experience angina (chest pain) as blood supply to the heart is reduced. Left unchecked, over time the coronary arteries can become fully blocked and lead to a sudden heart attack, resulting in permanent damage to the heart muscle or death.

The good news is that management of existing cardiovascular diseases keeps improving – such as using keyhole surgery to bypass blocked coronary arteries. Survival rates after a heart attack have also increased.

However, don’t let a dramatic dash in an ambulance be your wake-up call. You can lower your risk of heart disease by making some simple changes to your eating and exercise habits and being aware of early warning signs, such as high blood cholesterol or high blood pressure, and other risk factors (listed below). Even if you have an existing heart condition, you can actively improve your heart health with proper medical care and adopting a healthy lifestyle.

Risk factors

While some heart problems may be hereditary, others are the result of (or accentuated by) a number of risk factors, many of which are preventable.

  • Smoking

It’s commonly known to affect the lungs, however smoking also damages the blood vessels that supply your heart.

Hot tip: Speak to your GP about any support you may need to quit.

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

If you have persistent high blood pressure it can put a strain on your arteries, which makes them become thicker and narrower, raising blood pressure even more. Eventually this can lead to heart failure, heart attack or stroke. A high salt intake, alcohol consumption above recommended guidelines, excess weight and inactivity may all lead to high blood pressure.

Hot tip: If you have high blood pressure, talk to your health-care professional about treatment options and actively work to reach a healthy weight.

  • Type 2 diabetes

This disease can lead to multiple medical problems, including damage to blood vessels in the eyes, kidneys and heart.

Hot tip: If you have existing type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, maintain regular check-ups with your health-care team to manage and monitor your condition.

  • High blood fats (lipids)

Blood contains fatty substances and if these are too high it can cause a build-up of sticky deposits (plaque) in the small arteries around your heart. Over time this can cause complete blockages and lead to a heart attack. Pieces of plaque may also break off and travel through the blood vessels to the brain, causing a type of stroke. There are three main blood fats: LDL cholesterol (known as the ‘bad’ one as it’s the main source of heart plaque), HDL cholesterol (the ‘good’ one because it helps prevent plaque build-up) and triglycerides (which can also contribute to artery hardening).

Hot tip: Ask your GP for regular blood lipid tests. Healthy eating can help, however, some people have a genetic condition that requires medication.

  • Excess weight

Being overweight, especially around the middle, can have a big impact on a number of cardiovascular disease risk factors, including raising LDL and decreasing HDL cholesterol levels, increasing blood pressure and amplifying your risk of type 2 diabetes. Research is also uncovering additional risks, particularly from abdominal obesity, including insulin resistance and increased inflammation.

Hot tip: Reaching a healthy weight – or even a 5-10 per cent weight loss – can decrease your risk of heart disease.

  • Inactivity

Like any muscle, your heart will stay stronger if you exercise it. Being active has a host of physical and mental benefits and can also help you reach a healthy weight while reducing high blood pressure and lipid levels.

Hot tip: As well as regular planned physical activity, it’s important to work on increasing incidental activity, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift at work and decreasing the amount of time sitting. If you are resuming activity after being sedentary or have existing heart disease, speak with your health-care professional first.

  • Depression/isolation

Older people living alone have long been identified as being at greater risk of heart disease. However, any form of depression or social isolation can increase the risk because it makes you less motivated to look after your health.

Hot tip: Actively work on your mental wellbeing as part of a healthy lifestyle and seek expert help in difficult times.

  • Genetic makeup

There are some risks that you can’t control, such as your age (the older you get the more time there is for your arteries to get clogged), ethnic background (Indigenous Australians and New Zealanders are identified as high-risk groups) and family history (if a close relative has had a heart attack you may be more at risk). Many people also believe men are more at risk than women. However, while the hormone oestrogen offers some protection up until menopause, after that the risk of cardiovascular disease for women can be equal to men.

Hot tip: Be aware of your individual risk factors and limit your exposure to preventable risks.

How can I determine if my weight is healthy?

Simply stepping on a scale may not provide the most accurate assessment of your weight because it doesn't consider factors like your height, body shape, or individual circumstances. Health experts typically use two measures together:

1. Body Mass Index (BMI) - a calculation based on your weight and height that helps determine if you fall within a healthy weight range. Keep in mind that BMI may not be as precise for individuals with a high muscle percentage, such as bodybuilders. You can use an online BMI calculator to check your BMI.

2. Waist circumference - a measurement to determine if you carry excess weight around your midsection. People with an "apple" body shape (more weight around the waist) have a higher risk of heart disease compared to those with a "pear" body shape (more weight around the hips). Use a tape measure to measure your waist size (without clothing) and aim for 94cm or less for men and 80cm or less for women.

Note: If you have a health condition like heart disease or diabetes, it's important to consult a health-care professional before making significant changes to your weight or lifestyle.