Women and Heart Disease

Not just a man’s disease

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Heart disease is a leading cause of death for women in Australia.1  Despite this, it continues to be underdiagnosed and undertreated.2  Heart disease has long been considered a “man’s” disease. Due to this perception there is a lack of risk factor awareness and prioritisation, with women often having poorer outcomes with heart disease than males.3

What contributes to this difference in outcomes?

An improvement in awareness around heart disease in women is needed at both a patient and healthcare professional level to improve outcomes. There are a number of factors that may contribute to less favourable outcomes:

  • Stigma around heart disease being a “man’s” disease resulting in a lack of awareness³
  • Women being less likely to be proactive in having a heart health check, or understanding the need to improve modifiable risk factors³
  • Lower guideline directed medications in women or referral for cardiac rehabilitation³
  • Women experiencing chest pain are more likely to have delayed presentation to the hospital³
  • Women tend to develop symptoms of heart disease at a later stage than men⁴

Symptoms unique to women

Along with the traditional symptoms of heart disease, women can experience additional unique symptoms.⁴

Adapted from Heart Research Australia⁴

Female specific life events that can increase risk

There are female specific life events that can impact risk of developing heart disease.³  Improved knowledge around these life events, and the risks associated with such, are important to help manage overall heart health.

  • Increased risk of CVD for women who experience hypertensive and metabolic complications of pregnancy³
    • Women with pre-eclampsia have twice the risk of heart disease to women without³
    • Gestational diabetes increases risk of heart disease, and a significant proportion of this increased risk may be attributed to the fact that more than 50% of those who develop gestational diabetes go on to be diagnosed with chronic type 2 diabetes mellitus (an independent risk factor for heart disease)³
  • A major risk factor for CVD is obesity – in Australia almost half of mothers who gave birth were overweight or obese⁵

  • Oestrogens are believed to be cardio-protective. Studies have suggested that decreasing levels during and post menopause may contribute to higher rates of heart disease seen in post-menopausal women³
  • Early menarche, early menopause, earlier age at first birth, history of miscarriage, stillbirth, or hysterectomy, are each independently associated with a higher risk of CVD in later life³
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome is associated with a heightened risk of CVD, particularly coronary artery disease³

  • A number of breast cancer treatments can increase your risk of developing heart disease.³ Anyone who has a history of breast cancer and is concerned about their heart health should discuss a referral to a cardio-oncology clinic with their GP
  • Managing your heart health before, during and after cancer treatment is integral in reducing long term risk

Heart disease risk factors

In Australia, more than 90% of women have one or more modifiable CVD risk factors, and half have at least two or three.⁶

For women, there are a number of risk factors that increase their risk of heart attack more so than in men⁷

  • Smoking: not smoking is one of the best ways to protect your heart – risk of CVD in women who smoke is twice as much as men
  • Cholesterol: a healthy cholesterol level, or cholesterol managed with medication, will assist in heart health
  • High blood pressure: have regular checks with your GP to monitor your blood pressure
  • Exercise: regular, moderate exercise is beneficial for your health and wellbeing
  • Weight: maintaining a healthy weight decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease and many other health problems
  • Diet: eating a healthy, balanced diet is a great way to keep your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol in check

  • Age: as you get older, your risk of heart disease increases
  • Gender: men are at higher risk of heart disease however, women’s risk increases after menopause
  • Ethnicity: people of some origins e.g. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those from the Indian sub-continent are at higher risk
  • Family history: if someone in your family has cardiovascular disease, this increases your risk

There are a number of things that you can do to reduce your risk including:

  • Be aware of your body and your symptoms including those specific for women
  • Don’t ignore any symptoms that are new or different to usual
  • Take steps to modify risk factors that you can control
  • See your GP for a heart health check – all individuals over the age of 45 are eligible for a full health check through an Australian government initiative
  • Maintain regular heart health checks throughout female specific life events

A cardiovascular risk assessment with GenesisCare includes the following:

  • Depending on your history, you may undergo a cardiac CT calcium score. This is a scan of the arteries of your heart looking for build-up of calcium, providing a score which can be used to predict your future cardiac risk. This will happen prior to your cardiology consultation to ensure that our team have all the information required to assess your risk.
  • Consultation with a cardiologist and their team where they will take a clinical history, review test results and design a personal management plan for you and your heart
  • Electrocardiogram(ECG)
  • Blood tests for cholesterol and glucose (blood sugar) – if not already done
  • Other investigations as determined on clinical need by your cardiologist
  • Then based on this information designing a personal management plan for you and your heart

The assessment findings are delivered by one of our experienced cardiologists, to help you find out your risk of heart disease. A valid letter of referral from your GP is required before attending a heart health risk assessment at a GenesisCare clinic. If you’re currently experiencing symptoms, call triple zero (000).


  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021. Available at https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/life-expectancy-death/deaths-in-australia/contents/leading-causes-of-death: Accessed on 19/08/21.
  2. Chandrasekhar J,et al.International journal of women’s health, 2018; 10, p.267.
  3. Geraghty L, et al.Heart Lung andCirc 2021; 30:9-17 
  4. Heart Research Australia, 2021. Available at https://www.heartresearch.com.au/heart-disease/women-and-heart-disease/: Accessed on 23 August 2021. 
  5. Parsonage WA.,et alHeart, Lung and Circulation, 2021; 1: 45-51.
  6. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2010. Available at https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/men-women/women-heart-disease-cardiovascular-profile/contents/table-of-contents: Accessed on 23 August 2021. 
  7. Stehli J, et alHeart, Lung and Circ 2021; 30:18-26