First Light Healthcare

All you need to know about heart disease

By Tracey Hordern

Heart disease is Australia’s leading single cause of death. In Australia, 18,590 deaths were attributed to heart disease in 2017. This translates to one Australian dying every 28 minutes of heart disease. ***

It is estimated that 1.2 million Australians aged 18 and over have one or more conditions that are related to heart, stroke or vascular disease.*

Heart disease costs the Australian economy approximately $5 billion every year, which is more than any other disease. But it’s not all bad news, over the last 10 years, deaths in Australia have been declining, thanks to the research, improved diagnosis and treatments, and the growing awareness of the risks of heart disease among the general public. ****

Types of Heart Diseases

Heart disease is an umbrella term that describes a range of conditions that affect your heart. The term ‘cardiovascular disease’ is also used interchangeably to describe heart disease.

The term ‘cardiovascular disease’ however most often is used to describes the conditions involving narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, or a stroke.

Conditions most often described under the umbrella of heart disease include a wide range of heart / cardiovascular problems.

The Most Common Types of Heart Disease Include:


Arrhythmias are abnormal heart rhythms. The symptoms of this condition may depend on the type of arrhythmia you have, as some hearts beat too fast or too slow.


The condition of atherosclerosis is the hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis reduces the blood supply, most notably to the fingers and toes. Other symptoms include chest pain and shortness of breath.


This condition of cardiomyopathy describes a disease that causes the muscles of the heart to grow larger and turn rigid, thick, or weak.

Congenital Heart Defects 

Congenital heart defects are heart problems that develop when a foetus is growing. Some heart defects are never diagnosed, while others are.

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

Coronary Artery Disease is plaque build-up in the arteries that move oxygen-rich blood through the heart and lungs. This condition is sometimes referred to as ischemic heart disease.

Heart infections

A heart infection can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. The term heart infection can also be used to describe conditions that include endocarditis or myocarditis.

Heart Disease Risks

Approximately 90 percent of all Australians have at least one risk factor for heart disease. As with any disease, the more risk factors you have for heart disease you have, the greater your chance of developing it. The good news is for most of the risk factors, there is something you can do about them.***

Risks you can control:

  • Smoking
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Cholesterol
  • Activity level
  • Diabetes
  • Weight
  • Diet

Risks you can’t control:

  • Age – The older you are, the greater your risk of heart disease increases.
  • Gender – Men are at higher risk of heart disease. After menopause, the risk for women increases.
  • Ethnic background – People from some regions, such as the Indian sub-continent have higher risk of heart disease. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have more risk due to lifestyle factors.
  • Family history – If someone in your family has cardiovascular disease, speak to your doctor about your risk. 

How Heart Disease Symptoms Present with First Light Healthcare’s
Dr Kate Allan

Pictured above: Dr Kate Allan

“People present [with heart disease conditions] in a range of different ways. Often, they don’t have symptoms and it is picked up through a general check-up after discussing their personal, medical, social and family history.”

“But patients can also present with symptoms suggestive of heart disease – chest pain, palpitations, or shortness of breath.”

“Some people, especially women can have subtle symptoms. I inquire and monitor risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, excessive alcohol intake and family history will put someone into a higher risk category for developing heart disease. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients also are at higher risk.”

“For a healthy heart, I suggest a healthy lifestyle of no smoking, minimal alcohol, regular exercise and maintaining regular, preventative appointments with your GP.”

Australian Women and Heart Disease

Most people think of men when it comes to heart disease, yet it is one of the leading causes of illness and death for Australian women. While there are more men in the general population than women who experience heart disease, the risk in women can be much higher than most people realise, especially as it is too often undiagnosed and untreated. 

Almost three times as many women die of heart disease than breast cancer. Every day, 22 Australian women lose their lives to heart disease. In Australia, 90% of women have one risk factor for heart disease, and 50 percent have two or more. ****

Heart disease is a major cause of illness and death in Australian women, with 248,000 hospitalisations of women in 2018-2019 and 21,000 deaths recorded. This is equivalent to one in four female deaths in Australia, with Indigenous women twice as likely as non- Indigenous women to die of heart disease.*

In recent years the Australian government has undertaken a range of awareness programs to highlight the need for both the general public and the medical community to recognise the risks and the symptoms that may be present that indicate heart disease in women.

As well as the often, under-recognised risks for women, there are also certain heart conditions that are unique among women. The most common risk factors affecting women are high cholesterol, being overweight and physical inactivity.****

While heart disease can occur at any age for women, the risk increases significantly around menopause. Research has shown that just over half of women who have a heart attack experienced chest pain. However, for many others, only non-chest symptoms like breathlessness, nausea and arm or jaw pain.****

Increased awareness and recognition of the risks of heart disease for women will help to avoid the under-diagnosis, under-treatment, and under-estimating of the risks for women of dying or becoming seriously ill due to heart disease.

How do You Prevent Heart Disease?
with First Light Healthcare’s Dr Adam Ellerby

Keeping your heart healthy, whatever your age, is the most important thing you can do to help prevent and manage heart disease. We ask Dr Adam Ellerby how he recognises if someone is at risk of developing heart disease and what he suggests that can help to prevent the onset of heart disease.

“All our screening of heart disease is based on detecting people’s risk factors. Their gender, age, smoking status, and family history are all risk factors. We are always trying to identify those who are at higher risk so we can intervene earlier.

“I always try to encourage those aged between 40 to 49-years-old to come in and have some early screening bloods like cholesterol and a blood pressure check. These are the patients we can really make meaningful changes for!”

“Early signs of heart disease are pretty rare. The earliest symptom of ischaemic heart disease is angina, also known as Coronary Artery Disease, is a central chest pain brought on by exertion. This is a sign the heart vessels are blocked and are reducing the blood supply.”

“Unfortunately, sometimes the first presentation is when these vessels are entirely blocked – and someone is having a heart attack! These are typically felt as a central chest pain with nausea, sweatiness and a general sense of ‘things are really not ok!’”

“All the prevention strategies are aimed at controlling those risk factors we can. These typically include smoking cessation support, blood pressure control and cholesterol management. I also highly recommend regular exercise of at least 150 minutes per week – at a minimum.”

“I also recommend healthy eating, especially including lots of fresh veggies in your diet! Also, I suggest keeping saturated fats to a minimum and to be conscious of your salt intake – keeping it less than 4grams per day. Safe alcohol use is paramount, and so is the need to quit smoking!”


*Australian Government / Australian Institute of Health and Welfare


***Heart Research Australia

**** Heart Foundation of Australia