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an australian expert talks about what causes heart disease while a man clutches at his heart

What Causes Heart Disease

Heart disease, otherwise termed cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of Australia’s biggest health problems. What causes heart disease is a question us EPs get daily as coronary heart disease is one of the primary reasons people come to see me in Pascoe Vale.

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Coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease is so prevalent I’d go as far as saying that each of us have known someone to pass away from them.

With that in mind, let’s dive into what causes heart disease together.

A few interesting stats on cardiovascular disease

  • Affects more than 4 million Australians
  • Causes 1 in 4 deaths
  • Kills 40% more men than women

Even though it’s so prevalent in our communities, some of us might not be aware of this silent killer and how dangerous it can be when not prevented or managed.

So what is cardiovascular disease? What causes heart disease and who is at risk?

What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a broad, catch-all term that covers conditions that affect the structure and function of the heart and its connecting blood vessels. 

A few common types of heart disease include Coronary Artery Disease (or Coronary Heart Disease), Heart Failure, Valve Disease and Heart Arrhythmias

These specific conditions can increase your risk of stroke and heart attack. 

Let’s get into specifics of Coronary Artery Disease and Heart Failure a little bit more. 

Coronary Artery Disease 

Coronary Artery Disease is caused by build up of fatty plaque that sticks to the walls of the heart’s main artery – the coronary artery. The coronary artery is responsible for keeping up our heart health. Quite literally it provides all the nutrients to our heart muscle.

The result of disease to the coronary artery is narrowing of the artery’s wall, making it harder for blood to travel through. This can cause symptoms like rises in blood pressure, shortness of breath and chest tightness if left unattended. 

Coronary artery disease leading to heart attacks causes more deaths per year than any other disease. It is responsible for more than one in ten of all deaths in Australia.

Heart Failure 

Heart failure is a condition that occurs when your heart isn’t able to fill with blood or pump blood around your body properly. 

Our hearts chambers fill and eject blood with each heartbeat to transport oxygenated blood to our body’s muscles and organs. The ability of the heart to fill and then eject blood is represented through ejection fraction. 

A healthy heart has an ejection fraction of 50% or higher which means that the heart is pumping out at least half of the blood it fills with. 

In a person with heart disease, this can be compromised and this highlights the two different types of heart disease:

Heart Failure with preserved ejection fraction

The heart can pump blood around the body as normal but doesn’t stretch and recoil as it should. More blood pressure builds within the heart and causes fluid to leak out into tissues surrounding the lungs and across your body. This can leave you feeling short of breath and swollen.

Heart Failure with reduced ejection fraction

The heart is weak and cannot pump blood around the body as it should. As a result, fluid builds up and leaks around your body. Again this can leave you feeling short of breath and swollen. On top of that because your heart isn’t pumping oxygen and nutrients around your body as it should, you may start to feel dizzy and tired. 

Heart failure is commonly caused by coronary artery disease or comes as a result following a heart attack. 

What Causes Heart Disease?

Common causes of heart disease include sedentary lifestyle, genetics, and health conditions like obesity and diabetes that impact the function of the heart and damage it’s structures over time. 

This is different compared to heart failure which is caused by weakness of the heart which affects its ability to fill and pump out blood around your body. 

The cause of both examples are different. Yet both are under the umbrella of heart disease. 

Usually what causes heart disease is a mix between lifestyle behaviours and genetics. 

Heart Disease Risk Factors

We know that certain factors increase your risk of heart disease. Below is a comprehensive list.

  • Overweight/Obesity/Metabolic Syndrome
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol 
  • Family history
  • Age (Over 65)
  • Sex (Males are more at risk)
  • Smoking
  • Poor diet
  • Diabetes
  • Activity levels (Physical inactivity)
  • Stress
  • History of heart disease or cardiomyopathies

If you have one of these risk factors, it’s very likely that you might have another or multiple others. 

With multiple risk factors – the risk of developing heart disease compounds.

I’ll quickly go over two big risk factors in obesity and diabetes. 


Cardiovascular disease is the main cause of death in people living with diabetes.

People with diabetes are more at risk of heart disease. Around 30% of people living with Type II diabetes also have heart disease.

What’s even more staggering is that if you have diabetes, your chances of dying from heart disease is equal to that of someone who has already had a heart attack! 

High levels of glucose in your blood can damage the arteries walls and make them more likely to develop fatty deposits on their walls. More fatty deposits increase risk of stroke and heart attack.

High blood sugar can even damage the nerves that innovate your heart and surrounding blood vessels causing more complications. 

So for people with diabetes, the risk of heart disease is a serious issue that needs attention. Management with diet, lifestyle changes, and the appopriate physical activity levels is necessary. All things Exercise Physiologists are able to help you with.

If you have diabetes you could benefit from joining our medicare subsidised program

Overweight and Obesity

Two out of three people are overweight or obese in Australia.

On top of that – almost 80% of Australians are not meeting physical activity guidelines. 

Obesity is a key risk factor for other conditions we’ve mentioned like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and… you guessed it – increases your risk of heart disease!

Having obesity can alter the heart and arteries structure similar to other risk factors. Fatty tissues can release inflammatory molecules that affect how the heart works and, like diabetes, promote fatty plaque build-up on the walls of your arteries. 

Once again, this increases the risk of stroke and heart attack as well as other conditions like heart failure and heart arrhythmias. 

If you want to find out more about overweight and obesity you can read more here where we go into the medical terminology of obesity, metabolic syndrome.

Symptoms Of Heart Disease

We’ve gone over a few symptoms in this post but here’s a more detailed list.

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fluttering chest
  • Chest tightness or discomfort
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Lightheadedness
  • Heart arrhythmias (bradycardia or tachycardia)
  • High blood pressure

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms during rest or light activity, it is important you contact your GP for medical advice.

Now we’ve gone pretty deep here into what causes heart disease. You know the symptoms of heart disease and learned about how prevalent and dangerous heart attacks are in Australia.

The good news is that so many of these factors that contribute to your risk of heart disease can be treated and improved upon. We’ll get into the treatments in more detail in a post to come.

For those who are ready to take action now you can book in with us EPs to get started on your journey to a healthy heart. We’ll get those activity levels just right to build a strong healthy heart muscle with vibrant coronary arteries. We’ll incorporate strategies to address your own factors for heart disease even if you suffer with shortness of breath.

About the author

Aidan Rogers is an EP (Exercise Physiologist) passionate about heart health. He’s worked with hundreds of clients to reduce their risk of heart attacks and improve their overall heart and mental health.

If you’d like to make an appointment for a one-on-one session with Aidan or any of our EPs you can do that online.

For more information on heart disease in Australia you can check out this article from the Heart Foundation to help identify if you’re at risk.