Heart disease: Australia’s number one killer

Heart disease in Australia kills more people than any other disease, despite being a highly preventable condition.


Heart disease Australia


About 1.2 million Australians over 18 years of age suffer from one or more heart-related conditions requiring hospitalization. In fact, more than one in four deaths that occur in Australia are due to some form of heart disease. Some of the most important forms of heart disease Australia, based on information from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, include:


      • Coronary heart disease

        Also known as atherosclerotic heart disease, this condition occurs when there is damage or disease in the heart’s blood vessels, reducing or blocking the supply of oxygen to the heart. It is usually caused by build-up of plaque inside blood vessels, preventing the normal flow of blood and oxygen to the heart. Symptoms: people who suffer from coronary heart disease may experience angina (chest pain or discomfort following exercise), dizziness, among other symptoms. Prevalence: About 580,300 Australians over 18 years of age had coronary heart disease at some point in their lives. This condition is also more common in males than in females and is more likely to occur in people who are 75 years old or older. This condition is the leading cause of death in Australia, killing more than 19,000 adults every year.


      • Stroke 

        This is a sudden interruption of the brain’s blood supply, which is commonly caused by blockage of the arteries leading to the brain. Symptoms: people who suffer a stroke can experience multiple problems, and include having trouble walking, speaking, seeing, and understanding. They may also experience numbness in the face, arms, or leg. Prevalence: in 2018 more than 38,000 Australian had suffered a stroke at some point in their lives. This condition affects males more often than females, and it is more common as you age, with statistics showing that more than 70% of people who experienced a stroke were aged 65 and over.


      • Heart failure

        This condition occurs when the heart does not pump enough blood as the body needs. This condition is usually associated with other heart problems, such as coronary heart disease or high blood pressure. Symptoms: people suffering from heart failure may experience shortness of breath, fatigue, swollen legs and rapid heartbeat. Prevalence: nearly 105,000 people in Australia aged 18 and over had experienced heart failure. Most people affected by this condition are aged 65 and over.


      • Rheumatic heart disease

        This is a chronic condition, characterised by damage to the valves, lining or muscles of the heart, reducing its functionality. Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) usually develops after a person has suffered recurring episodes of acute rheumatic fever (ARF), a condition caused by infection with Group A Streptococcus When left untreated, a throat infection with Group A Streptococcus can lead to acute ARF and within two-three weeks, a systemic immune reaction can occur, which can affect the brain, skin, joints and heart, causing inflammation. Symptoms: people affected by RHD may experience chest pain, heart palpitations, breathlessness, breathing problems when lying down, fever, and stroke, among other problems. Prevalence: in 2018 there were about 5,000 persons affected by RHD. More than 85% of those affected are indigenous Australians, most are females and about 60% are under the age of 25.


      • Congenital heart disease 

        Acquired from birth, congenital heart disease can include any of multiple structural defects in a baby’s heart chambers, arteries, septum or valves. Symptoms: Typical symptoms of congenital heart disease include abnormal heartbeats, blue-tinted skin, shortness of breath, failure to feed, abnormal development, and swollen tissues or organs. Prevalence: this genetic condition is known to affect about 2,400 Australians every year.


Heart Disease Australia – prevalence


Among the different types of heart diseases, coronary heart disease is the most common, standing as the largest single cause of death in Australia. It is estimated that there are about 151 heart attacks reported in Australia every day, which translates to about 1 heart attack every 10 minutes.


Table 1 shows the prevalence of heart disease, according to 2018 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, across all Australian states.  Heart disease Australia is characterised by having a higher prevalence in males, being more common in older age groups and by being, for most people, a highly preventable condition.


Table 1. Prevalence (%) and number of people (No) affected by heart disease.

NSW Vic. Qld SA WA Tas. NT ACT Australia
% 3.9 4.6 4.1 4.4 4.2 4.7 2.6 4.5 4.2
No 353,100 320,200 226,000 92,200 112,400 31,000 36,000 18,000 1,156,500



      • Western Australia (WA)

        In WA, there were more than 65,000 people who suffered coronary heart disease between 2000 and 2010. Among this group, about 65% were men and 60% were over 65 years of age. Heart disease was responsible for 13% of the total burden of disease in this state during 2011, according to government figures.


      • South Australia (SA)

        According to South Australia’s Health Performance Council, more than 184,000 people were living with some form of cardiovascular disease in 2018. In average, heart disease prevalence was significantly higher in males, compared to females and increased with age. For example, the lowest prevalence was found in the 25-34 age range, where only 0.7% of males and 3.4% of females suffered heart disease, compared to the 75+ age group, where 38.8% of males and 27.3% of females had some form of heart disease.


      • Queensland (QLD)

        Coronary heart disease currently stands as the most common disease and the leading cause of death for both males and females Queenslanders, with more than 8,330 deaths reported in 2014. In 2018, more than 225,000 people reported some form of heart disease in Queensland, representing 14% of the total burden of disease of this state.


      • Victoria (VIC)

        According to figures from VIC, heart disease was responsible for the deaths of nearly 7,300 Victorians in 2011 – about 20% of all deaths of the state. Currently, more than 300,000 Victorians are living with some form of heart disease.


      • New South Wales (NSW)

        In 2018, heart disease affected more than 350,000 Australians in NSW. Coronary heart disease and stroke, for example, caused nearly 6,000 and over 2,800 deaths, respectively, in 2017.


      • Australian Capital Territory (ACT)

        In the most recent survey, heart disease was found to affect about 18,000 Australian in the ACT.


      • Tasmania (TAS)

        Tasmania stands as the state with the highest rate of heart disease. It is estimated that about 25% of the Tasmanian population (about 31,000 people) live with some form of heart disease.



Heart disease Australia: causes


Heart disease is a condition influenced by multiple factors, from the type of food you eat, to how active you are throughout the day or how much you sleep you get every night. The most important factors influencing heart disease Australia include:

      • Lifestyle habits

        Following an unhealthy lifestyle can increase your risk of developing heart disease, mostly through the build-up of plaque within your blood vessels. Some of the most important lifestyle factors to consider are:


            • Being Sedentary

              Lack of exercise in your daily routine can have a negative impact on i) cholesterol and triglycerides levels, ii) high blood pressure, iii) diabetes/prediabetes, and iv) overweight/obesity. These are all important risk factors known to influence the health of your heart1.


            • Sleep

              Getting enough and good quality sleep affect the optimal functioning of your heart, through the influence sleep has on various factors affecting heart health2-3.


            • Stress

              A consequence of stress is the tightening of arteries, which can lead to an increase chance of developing coronary heart disease. Stress can also indirectly increase your chances of heart disease if it makes you eat more unhealthy foods or take up smoking, two well-known risk factors of heart disease4-5.


            • Diet

              The best-known risk factor of heart disease (and the most manageable) involves what you eat and drink. Consuming high levels of saturated or trans fats and refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, and white rice) can lead to an unhealthy weight, diabetes, high levels of blood cholesterol, atherosclerosis, and plaque build-up in your arteries. All these conditions significantly increase your chances of developing a heart condition6-7.


            • Smoking

              People who smoke are twice as likely to develop heart disease, compared to non-smokers8.


      • Gut Microbiota

        In recent years, studies have established links between the composition of gut microbiota and the metabolites they produce with the progression of certain heart diseases. Future research may pave the way for the development of treatment strategies for heart disease involving modulation of gut microbiota9-12.


      • Age and sex 

        The risk of heart disease increases after the age of 45 for men and after 55 for women, following menopause. Sex is another relevant factor, as it has been shown that men are at higher risk of heart disease than pre-menopausal women. After menopause, women’s risk is similar to men’s risk13-15.


      • Family history and genetics

        Many genes have been identified that can increase the risk of developing heart disease. Many of these genes are inherited, so it is important to check your family history for any cases of heart conditions16-18. With family history, it is important to check if your father or brother had heart disease before the age of 55, or if your mother or sister were diagnosed with a heart condition before the age of 65, as this could suggest you have an increased chance of developing a heart disease19.


      • Race

        Studies have shown that certain ethnical groups, like Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians or Alaska Natives tend to have a higher risk of developing heart disease20-22.



Conditions linked to Heart disease Australia


If you have developed any form of heart disease, you have a higher chance of developing several other diseases, including:

      • Pulmonary hypertension

        This occurs when there is excessive pressure in the arteries leading from the heart to the lungs. People suffering from pulmonary hypertension may experience shortness of breath and fatigue.


      • Peripheral arterial disease

        This condition occurs due to the narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the arms and legs. People with this condition experience pain in the leg, calf, buttock, hip, or thigh as well as numbness on the feet.


      • Aortic aneurysm and dissection

        These two conditions affect the aorta, the major artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Aneurysms occur when there is an enlargement of the aorta, leading to a rupture, whereas a dissection is when there is a tear in the aorta. These are medical emergencies.



Heart disease Australia: a western diet problem?


Country-level comparisons show that countries like Japan, Hong Kong, France, and Greece have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. In Japan and France, for example, the rate of heart disease is 20 deaths per 100,000 people, a third of the rates in the USA, where there are 60 deaths per 100,000 people. In Australia, coronary heart disease has a rate of 66 deaths per 100,000 people23.


These figures strongly suggest an association between lifestyle and heart disease outcomes. Countries like Japan or France still follow a diet substantially different from the high-fat high-sugar foods of western diets, like those followed in the USA and Australia. One study focused on the dietary habits of Japanese men and women, found a significant association between their healthy diet and the observed low levels of heart disease24.



The Functional Medicine Approach


Heart disease Australia is a major focus of the Australian Centre for Functional Medicine, offering face to face consultations in our Perth, WA clinic and Telehealth calls throughout Australia. There are multiple factors affecting the development and progression of heart disease Australia, and most of these factors are preventable, treatable and reversible.

With the help of comprehensive and advanced testing approaches, our health specialists can identify the different risk factors at play in your body. Once these risk factors are identified, we can design a custom-made approach that will address all your needs.

Our treatment approach involves a combination of standard medical care with natural therapies that are backed by clinical research. We also employ pre- and probiotics when deemed beneficial, based on results from clinical testing.

If you are over 45 years of age, and you lead an unhealthy lifestyle, we can help you improve your chances of avoiding a heart attack or any other heart disease.








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