Better heart health: 7 questions answered
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a significant problem in Australia, but did you know making even small changes can lead to better heart health? Here, we discuss some things you can do to show your heart more love and the signs that indicate you should seek medical advice.
1. What symptoms suggest I should see a doctor and who do I see?
Certain symptoms may indicate something isn’t quite right with your heart. You should see a doctor if you’re experiencing:
- Chest pain/angina
- Heart palpitations (racing or irregular heartbeat)
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or fainting
- Heart failure signs – swollen ankles, difficulty in breathing when lying flat, or waking up short of breath.
Your general practitioner (GP) is a great place to start. They may refer you to a cardiologist (heart specialist) for an assessment and opinion. In a medical emergency, dial 000 (triple zero).
2. What lifestyle factors impact heart health?
The way you live can significantly impact your heart health. Lifestyle factors that can place you at higher risk of developing heart disease  include:
- Smoking – smoking damages blood vessels, including those to your heart. Smokers are three times more likely to die of a heart attack than non-smokers.
- Unhealthy diet – what and how much you eat can directly affect your heart health, as well as other heart disease risk factors including your weight and cholesterol levels.
- Unhealthy weight – being overweight or obese can directly impact your heart, along with your blood pressure and blood glucose control.
- Lack of physical activity.
- Heavy or binge drinking.
3. What are the other risk factors for heart disease?
Along with lifestyle choices, various conditions can place you at higher risk of heart disease1. Some of these are known as ‘modifiable risk factors’, which means you can do things to manage them. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and some mental health conditions. Your living and working conditions can also impact your heart health.
Other heart heath risk factors include1:
- Your age and gender – in general, men are at greater risk of developing heart disease in middle age than women, with risk rising as they get older. Women are more likely to be affected later, with post-menopause hormonal changes and lifestyle factors believed to play a role. Pregnancy complications (such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes) can also increase the risk of developing heart disease in later life.
- Your ethnic background – people from Middle Eastern, South Asian, Māori or Pacific Islander descent are at increased risk, as are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
- A family history of heart disease.
While these risk factors can’t be controlled, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. Getting your heart health checked is the first step.
4. What is a Heart Health Check?
A Heart Health Check is an assessment of your cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk conducted by a GP and funded under Medicare for eligible people. The 20-minute check involves gathering information about your risk factors, taking your blood pressure, and working out your risk using a special calculator.
When needed, your doctor will also design a plan for managing your risk. This may include advice to help you develop a more heart-friendly lifestyle, medications to manage any health conditions (such as high blood pressure or cholesterol), and ongoing monitoring of your risk factors.
People aged 45 years and over, or 30 years and over for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, are eligible for an annual Heart Health Check.
5. What can I do to help prevent heart disease?
You can do several things to support better heart health, including:
- Quitting smoking – the Heart Foundation say quitting is the single best thing you can do for your heart health1. If you need support to stop smoking, talk to your GP, call Quitline on 13 78 48, or visit the Quit website.
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet – this doesn’t mean following a strict plan but making simple changes you can stick to. Aim for a diet that’s high in fresh foods and fibre, and low in unhealthy fats, salt and added sugar. Learn more about heart-healthy eating here.
- Getting some exercise – regular physical activity has numerous health benefits, including lowering your risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure. It also has proven benefits for mental health, including improved mood and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Start slowly and build up gradually towards 30 to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking) on most days. Read more about physical activity and heart health here.
- Achieving a healthy weight1 – this can lower your risk of heart disease, along with improving your blood pressure and cholesterol. Women should aim to achieve a waist size of less than 80cm, and men 94cm or less.
- Cutting down alcohol – aim to follow Australian guidelines, which recommend that healthy men and women drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four in one day.
- Getting a Heart Health Check – if you meet the eligibility criteria, it’s a great idea to book yourself in for a check-up. You should also see your doctor if you have known risk factors for CVD or need support to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes.
6. My GP recommended I see a cardiologist. What does a cardiologist do and what tests might they run?
A cardiologist is a medical doctor with additional advanced training in the assessment, management and prevention of heart disease. Your doctor may refer you to a cardiologist if they believe an expert opinion would help with managing your heart health.
A cardiologist may arrange for you to have specialised scans or tests, such as an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) or specific blood tests. These give doctors a more complete picture of what’s happening with your heart and help to guide treatment decisions.
7. I have more questions, who can I ask?
If you have more questions about your heart health, talk to your GP and ask for a referral to one of our leading cardiologists at ACHA.
Like more information about ACHA's cardiology services?
 Heart Foundation. Are you at risk of heart disease? https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/heart-health-education/are-you-at-risk-of-heart-disease. Accessed online 26.7.2022.
 Better Health Channel. Heart disease - know your risk. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/heart-disease-risk-factors. Accessed online 26.7.2022.
 Heart Foundation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: Are you at risk of heart disease? https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/Heart-health-education/aboriginal-health-risk-of-heart-disease. Accessed online 26.7.2022.
 Heart Foundation. For professionals: Heart Health Checks. https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/Activities-finding-or-opinion/FP-Absolute-risk-heart-health-checks. Accessed online 26.7.2022.
 Heart Foundation. Smoking and your heart. https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/heart-health-education/smoking-and-your-heart. Accessed online 26.7.2022.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Physical activity. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/behaviours-risk-factors/physical-activity/about. Accessed online 26.7.2022.
 Healthdirect. Exercise and mental health. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/exercise-and-mental-health. Accessed online 26.7.2022.
 Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. How much alcohol is safe to drink? https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/alcohol/about-alcohol/how-much-alcohol-is-safe-to-drink. Accessed online 26.7.2022.
Reviewed by Prof Kuljit Singh: https://specialists.healthscope.com.au/specialist/kuljit-singh-med0001069698