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Are you at risk of heart disease? 12 signs you need to know

We've put togther 12 risk factors for heart disease

Man wearing a beanie eats a burger
Man wearing a beanie eats a burger

Heart disease is one of the country’s biggest health problems with one Aussie dying from cardiovascular disease every 12 minutes, opens in a new tab. So, we’ve put together 12 of the biggest risk factors – and some of them might surprise you!

Modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors 

A heart attack or stroke typically results from a blend of risk factors rather than a single cause. These factors fall into two categories: modifiable (which can be altered) and non-modifiable (which cannot be changed). Non-modifiable factors include age, gender, post-menopausal status, and a family history of heart disease at an early age. 

While non-modifiable risk factors can’t be helped, the positive news is that adopting heart-healthy habits getting regular check ups with your GP can lower your risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke.

The biggest risk factors of heart disease

1. Age

As you get older, your risk of heart disease increases, opens in a new tab. It’s recommended that everyone over 45, or 30 and over for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Peoples get an annual heart health check. So, despite how young you feel, it’s important to keep tabs on your ticker.  

Related: Keep on top of the health checks that you need at every age, opens in a new tab

2. Sex

Men have a higher risk of getting heart disease, opens in a new tab especially from middle aged onwards; but, as a woman grows older, her risk increases –especially after menopause.

3. Ethnicity

Some people face a higher risk of heart disease, opens in a new tab, such as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Peoples and those from specific ethnic backgrounds like South Asian, Middle Eastern, Māori, or Pacific Islander.

Credit: nib health insurance

4. Family history

If you have a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol, it’s important to talk to a health professional about your risk. 

Understanding your risk of heart disease involves considering both family history and inherited conditions, which have different origins and impacts. Inherited conditions result from genetic changes passed from parents, possibly causing heart muscle problems, dangerous heart rhythms, or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, family history reflects shared genes and environments across generations, increasing the likelihood of heart disease. By identifying relatives with heart issues and when the disease started, particularly if before age 60, you and your GP can gauge your risk of a heart attack or stroke.  

Knowing you have a family history of heart disease also enables you to actively make positive lifestyle changes to lower your risk.

Related: Could a heart health check save your life?, opens in a new tab

5. Smoking

We all know how bad smoking is for your lungs, but it also greatly increases your risk of heart attacks and other types of heart disease and stroke. At nib, we’re passionate about keeping your heart healthy, so we offer a number of Extras products that pay benefits towards quit smoking programs and Nicotine replacements. To find out whether you’re eligible, log in to your member account, opens in a new tab or call us on 13 16 42, opens in a new tab.

6. High cholesterol

There are different types of cholesterol in the body. The two main types of cholesterol are LDL and HDL. LDL cholesterol is known as the ‘bad cholesterol’ and builds up into fatty plaques in the arteries, so this needs to be low. HDL cholesterol is known as the ‘good’ cholesterol and helps to prevent bad cholesterol from building up in the arteries, so this needs to be high. If you have a high cholesterol reading, you may have too much bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol), which is a big risk factor for heart disease. 

Related: What is considered a healthy cholesterol level?, opens in a new tab 

7. High blood pressure

High blood pressure is also known as the silent killer because it doesn’t have any obvious signs or symptoms. This means it’s so important that you get your blood pressure tested with your GP regularly. To find out more about high blood pressure and its effect on the heart, read our article: What is a normal blood pressure range?, opens in a new tab

8. Diabetes

Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are unavoidably linked. High blood glucose is a major risk factor for developing coronary heart disease, stroke and damage to the kidneys, eyes and nerves. If you have diabetes, it’s essential that you continually work with a health professional to minimise your risk of heart disease by keeping your diabetes well controlled. At nib, we provide eligible members with access to a range of diabetes Health Management Programs, opens in a new tab at no additional cost to help you manage your condition.

9. Being inactive

Many Aussies simply aren’t exercising enough, opens in a new tab, making them at risk of heart and other disease. Australian Government guidelines, opens in a new tab recommend adults get active preferably every day of the week, totalling 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate activity or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous activity or an equivalent combination of both. 

Getting active doesn’t mean you have to visit a gym. Moderate activity can include things like walking doing some body weight exercises (like push-ups, squats or lunges), playing a round of golf or even mowing the lawn! 

Need some inspo? Check out exercise tips and ideas from experts to keep you moving, opens in a new tab

10. Being overweight and your waist circumference

When it comes to assessing health risks like heart disease, your waist size is often used by health professionals as a measure of risk. Abdominal obesity, measured by waist circumference, is linked to higher chances of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Unlike BMI, which can't distinguish between fat and muscle, waist measurement gives a clearer picture of excess body fat around your middle. This fat buildup around vital organs raises the risk of heart disease and stroke. According to The Heart Foundation, opens in a new tab, men with a waist size over 94cm and women over 80cm are at increased risk.

If you are concerned about your weight or waist circumference, it’s a good idea to seek advice from a dietitian or other health professional. Use our Find a Provider tool, opens in a new tab to find a health practitioner near you.

11. Unhealthy diet

Having a healthy diet can assist with a number of heart disease risk factors including weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. Before you make any changes to your diet, always speak to your health professional who will be able to give you personalised guidance.

Access healthy recipes for all occasions from nutritionists and dieticians, opens in a new tab.

12. Depression, anxiety and mental health challenges

Experiencing anxiety and depression can heighten the risk of heart disease, especially when coupled with feelings of loneliness or social isolation. These conditions often occur together, especially after a heart attack. 

You can support both your heart health and mental wellbeing by seeking medical advice, joining cardiac rehabilitation programs, adopting healthier lifestyle habits, and staying connected with loved ones. 

If you're struggling with your physical or mental health, don't hesitate to seek help – early intervention is key. Services like Lifeline, opens in a new tab and Beyond Blue, opens in a new tab offer mental health information and access 24 hour crisis support. 

If you're recovering from heart-related hospitalisation, nib offers specialised heart health management programs, opens in a new tab for eligible members designed to aid your recovery, improve overall health, and reduce the risk of future cardiac events. 

Does your policy cover your heart?

At nib, we believe that understanding your health cover should be simple, so if you aren’t sure that you’re covered for heart related procedures and heart surgery, check what you’re covered for in your member account, opens in a new tab or check the procedure number using the free Going to Hospital tool, opens in a new tab.

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The content in this article serves as broad information and should not replace any advice given to you by a medical practitioner. Always seek professional medical advice before making any healthcare decisions. Article reviewed by Dr Hamish Black, April 2024.