Most of us know that heart disease is a big problem in Australia, but how many of us could explain what heart disease actually is? There’s many confusing terms out there including ‘heart attack’, ‘coronary disease’, ‘coronary heart disease’ and ‘cardiovascular disease’. 

In this article, we are going to explain what heart disease is. Then we’ll focus on the type of heart disease that’s the single biggest killer of males in Australia—coronary heart disease. We’ll look at the risk factors for heart disease and examine whether it affects men and women differently.

Finally, we’ll talk about ways of preventing heart disease.

How does the heart work?

The heart is the focal point of the circulatory system, a network of blood vessels (arteries, veins and capillaries) that carries blood to and from all areas of your body. Blood carries the oxygen and nutrients that your organs need to work properly. It also carries carbon dioxide to your lungs which is then breathed out. The heart has four chambers and four valves that open and close as it pumps. The pumping motion is created by electrical impulses that cause the heart muscles to contract and relax.

What is heart disease?

‘Heart disease’ is a general term covering several different diseases and conditions that can be put into the following four categories.

  1. Cardiovascular disease. This is a disease of the cardiovascular system, which consists of the heart and blood vessels. The most common cardiovascular disease is coronary heart disease (CHD), also known as ischaemic heart disease. This is the result of atherosclerosis, a build-up of fatty substances in the walls of the coronary arteries that causes them to become narrowed or blocked. This leads to less blood and oxygen reaching the heart muscle, which can result in heart attack or stroke.
  2. Arrhythmias. These are abnormal heart rhythms resulting from faults in the heart’s electrical system. The faults cause your heartbeat to become too fast, too slow or irregular.
  3. Heart failure. This is where the heart muscle is damaged and does not pump properly. It can result from a variety of diseases, events and conditions such as heart attack, cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle) and uncontrolled high blood pressure.
  4. Structural heart disease. This refers to conditions that affect the heart’s valves, walls, chambers or muscles. These include cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), rheumatic heart disease, congenital heart disease and heart valve disease.

Coronary heart disease (CHD)

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), CHD is the country’s leading cause of death. The latest statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) state that in 2021 CHD was the underlying cause of 17,300 deaths (10% of all deaths). Figures from the same organisation suggest that CHD affects males more than females, with 3.8% of men having the condition in the period 2017–18, compared with 1.9% of women. At age 75 and over, there is a marked difference between men (21%) and women (8.1%) reporting having coronary heart disease.

It appears that, in Australia, more men are affected by heart disease than women. The AIHW uses the term ‘acute coronary event’ to describe sudden and life-threatening conditions that result in reduced blood flow to the heart. These conditions include heart attack, unstable angina (chest pain) and deaths due to acute coronary heart disease. In 2020, an estimated two-thirds (66%) of acute coronary events among people aged 25 and over occurred in men. When it comes to CHD specifically, rates of death caused by the condition were twice as high for males as for females. In the same year, CHD was responsible for a large proportion of premature deaths before age 75, especially in the male population—37% of males dying from CHD were aged less than 75 years, compared with 15% of females.

Risk factors for CHD in men and women

Many of the risk factors for CHD apply equally to women and men. Some of these risk factors are modifiable (meaning that they can be changed) and others are non-modifiable (they cannot be changed).

Modifiable risk factors include:

  • Having excess body fat
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having an unhealthy diet
  • Having high levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood) and low levels of HDL-C (the ‘good’ cholesterol).
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Smoking.

Other factors that increase the risk of CHD include depression, anxiety and social isolation.

Non-modifiable risk factors include:

  • Sex.
  • Age.
  • Family history.
  • Having diabetes.

Is there a gender gap in heart disease risk?

According to Heart Research Australia, men are at a higher risk of heart disease than women, although the risk for women increases after menopause and may become equal to that of men.

One risk factor that seems to apply to men especially is metabolic syndrome, which is a term for a cluster of risk factors that increase a person’s risk of stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. These risk factors include high blood pressure, excess abdominal weight, low levels of ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol and insulin resistance.

Heart disease often goes undetected in women. The reasons for this are thought to include:

  • Women often develop symptoms of heart disease at a later stage in the illness than men.
  • Symptoms can be more vague in women.
  • Some diagnostic tests for heart disease are less accurate in women than in men.
  • Some health professionals may be less likely to check for heart disease in women.
  • There is less community awareness of the risk of heart disease in females. A significant amount of people mistakenly assume that heart disease mostly affects middle-aged men.

According to the US Government agency, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), some factors raise women’s risk of CHD more than they increase the risk for men. These factors include having diabetes, having low levels of HDL cholesterol, having mild-to-moderate high blood pressure and smoking. Additionally, women can have the added possible risk factors of PCOS, pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes during pregnancy, which may increase their chances of developing heart disease later in life.

How to reduce the risk of heart disease in men and women

Lifestyle risk factors can be changed and reduce a person’s risk of heart disease. These include:

  • quitting smoking
  • eating a healthy diet
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • being physically active
  • reducing alcohol intake
  • seeing your doctor regularly for health checks, especially if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.

As depression and loneliness are also risk factors for heart disease, staying socially connected and maintaining good mental health are important prevention strategies.


Heart disease is a significant health concern in Australia. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, approximately 1.2 million adults had one or more conditions related to heart, stroke or vascular disease in 2017-18. In the same year, the prevalence of heart disease among Australians was around 4.8%, with the condition being more common among males (5.4%) than females (4.2%). Additionally, diseases of the circulatory system were responsible for 27% of all deaths in Australia.

The modifiable risk factors for heart disease can be positively influenced by making healthy lifestyle choices. But doing this is not always easy on your own. This is where the Life! program can help.

How the Life! program can help you

Life! is a free healthy lifestyle program that helps you improve your eating habits, increase your physical activity and manage stress. It will help you reduce your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Life! is run by experienced health professionals, including dietitians and exercise physiologists, who guide and support you to make healthy lifestyle changes. 

The program includes 7 sessions delivered over a 12-month period. You can choose from a group course or our telephone health coaching service. Learn more about the Life! program

You can check your eligibility for the Life! program by taking a quick online test here.


Aortic Valve – Structural Heart Disease Australia

Cardiovascular disease in women, Summary – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Diabetes in Australia – Diabetes Australia

Health Conditions Prevalence, 2020-21 – Australian Bureau of Statistics

Heart explained – Better Health Channel

Heart, stroke & vascular diseases Overview – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Heart, stroke and vascular disease – Australian Bureau of Statistics

Heart, stroke and vascular disease: Australian facts – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Heart, stroke and vascular disease: Australian facts, Burden of cardiovascular disease – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Heart, stroke and vascular disease: Australian facts, Coronary heart disease – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Metabolic syndrome – Health Direct

Risk Factors – Heart Research Australia

What is heart disease? – Heart Foundation

Women and Heart Disease – NHLBI, NIH


Kristie Cocotis, Head of Prevention and Health Promotion

Sarah Dubé, Strategy and Engagement Lead

Ria Cheripuram, Digital Communications Officer

Tegan Kohlman, Communications and Social Marketing Officer

Angel Fan, Program facilitator and Health Coach