Risk Factors

Recent research shows that the underlying causes of Cardiovascular and Peripheral Vascular Disease begin to accumulate at childhood. By the time the resulting diseases have been detected atherosclerosis has usually been advancing for decades.

Understanding the risks, how they contribute to Cardiovascular and Peripheral Vascular Disease and knowing how to reduce them is essential for good health.

Understand the risks and reduce them

High Blood Pressure

The higher your Blood Pressure (BP), the greater your risk of Heart Attack, Heart Failure, Stroke, kidney and eyesight problems. Controlling and lowering your BP, if it's high, is always a key part of managing or preventing Cardiovascular Disease.

This is because increased blood pressure stresses the heart, making it work harder than normal to circulate blood through the arteries. Over time, this excessive workload can enlarge and weaken the heart muscle.

Combined with other Risk Factors, such as High Cholesterol, smoking and diabetes, the chances of developing Cardiovascular Disease increase greatly.

High Cholesterol

High Cholesterol is one of the main risks for Cardiovascular Disease. 'Bad' cholesterol (LDL) and trigs (triglycerides) cause fat to stick to the artery walls where it mixes with other substances to create atheroma – a build up of fatty plaque that hardens and narrows the arteries.

Atheroma is at the root of many heart conditions – for example, if a blood clot forms on the fatty plaque and blocks the narrowed artery, it can lead to a Heart Attack or a Stroke, which can in turn trigger Arrhythmia and even Cardiac Arrest.

Add in other Risk Factors such as smoking, High Blood Pressure and diabetes, and the risk of Cardiovascular Disease is greatly increased.


Diabetes works in a number of ways as a major Risk Factor for developing Cardiovascular Disease.

Glucose encourages atherosclerosis, the formation of fatty deposits on artery walls (atheroma), which contributes to almost all heart conditions. In diabetes it develops more quickly and is more widespread throughout the body

Diabetics are far more likely to suffer from High Blood Pressure (hypertension), itself a major risk for Cardiovascular Disease. And in raising the levels of fat-storing triglycerides (trigs), and increases high blood cholesterol.

If you're diabetic, overweight and/or smoke, the combination of all those factors is even more risky for your heart.

Untreated, diabetes will eventually cause kidney disease and eye problems –even blindness – in addition to Cardiovascular Disease. At its most severe, if your glucose levels are extremely high, you may go into a coma and die.

If you've been diagnosed with 'early' diabetes (high blood glucose but not high enough to be diabetes), you are still at risk of developing heart complications, so talking with your doctor to develop a management and treatment plan is essential for your heart health.


There's a direct link between cigarette smoking and Coronary Cardiovascular Disease, Heart Attack, Stroke and Angina. Cigar and pipe smoking is not quite as bad for your heart, possibly because the smoke is not inhaled.

Smoking damages the lining of your arteries, by encouraging the build up of a fatty substance called atheroma. When this fatty lining grows, it's harder for blood to pump through your body, delivering the vital nutrients you need to function. This increases the risk of dangerous blood clots, which can cause Heart Attack and Stroke. Smoking also reduces HDL (good cholesterol).

Independent of atherosclerosis, smoking makes your blood clot more readily – especially if you take oral contraceptive birth control pills.

Cigarette smoke feeds your body carbon monoxide, the same stuff that comes out of your car's exhaust pipe. It sucks the oxygen out of your system, so your heart isn't pumping oxygen-rich blood it needs through your body.

And cigarettes also make your heart work harder – but not in a good way. The nicotine stimulates your body into producing adrenaline which makes your heart beat faster, raising your blood pressure.

If you smoke and have any other Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease such as High Cholesterol, High Blood Pressure and diabetes, your chance of a Heart Attack or Stroke increases exponentially.

Obesity & overweight

Every person is different and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. So, knowing your healthy weight range, getting there and staying there, is essential for your heart's health.

Overweight simply means that your body weighs more than it should, usually because of an excess of body fat. It's the result of imbalance in the 'energy in', and 'energy out' equation – food versus physical activity. Your body needs energy to function, but if you don't expend this energy (the food and drink you consume) it's stored as fat.

Yes, most often it is that simple. Obesity is only very rarely the result of a medical condition, such as an underactive thyroid.

Where your body fat is stored is a key part of working out your risk of Cardiovascular Disease. Fat on the belly, common among men, is more dangerous to your heart than fat that sits on the hips and thighs, which tends to be more typical in women.

Being overweight creates several big problems for the heart muscle.

Extra weight puts extra pressure on the heart, making it work harder to do its job, increasing the chance of Heart Failure.

Carrying excess fat also means that there are more fatty molecules, the 'bad' cholesterol, in the blood. And High Blood Pressure is more likely if you are overweight. This increases the Risk of atherosclerosis, the narrowing of the arteries with fatty plaque deposits (atheroma), which makes it difficult for the blood to flow normally through the body, placing even more pressure on the heart. That puts you in the danger zone for Heart Attack and Stroke.

Excess weight also places you at a great Risk of developing diabetes, which is in turn, a major Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease.

Sedentary lifestyle

Put simply, being sedentary means not moving around enough. A sedentary, or non-active, lifestyle is a key risk for Cardiovascular Disease. Research shows that inactive people are twice as likely to develop Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke.

This is because exercise helps to manage many Cardiovascular Disease risks, particularly being overweight, which can in turn ramp up your chances of developing other complications, such as diabetes, High Blood Pressure and High Cholesterol.

And while the jury is still out on whether stress directly contributes to Cardiovascular Disease, there's a big body of evidence that shows exercise helps to both prevent and treat depression – another Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease.

Being active doesn't necessarily mean you're training for a marathon, or putting in hours with a personal trainer each week.

It can be as simple as taking three short, ten-minute walks a day; lugging mulch and digging up veggies in the garden; and choosing the stairs over the lift. Even standing up to do the ironing while you watch TV is a more active option than sinking into the couch with the remote control.

The National Physical Activity Guidelines for Australians recommend 30 minutes of moderate physical activity – like brisk walking – every day. But if that's not possible, just two hours of activity spread over a week will still deliver some benefits for your health.

Pour nutrition

Your body processes everything you eat and drink, converting it into energy, extracting vitamins and minerals and getting rid of waste. So what you eat has a major impact on your heart and overall health.

Eating a diet that's high in salt, sugar, saturated and trans fats, combined with a lack of physical activity, means your body is likely to be developing conditions that are known to be risks for Cardiovascular Disease, such as carrying excess weight, as well as high levels of LDL (the 'bad' cholesterol) and/or low levels of HDL, the 'good' cholesterol. A poor diet also increases the chance of having high blood glucose levels, potentially leading to the development of Type 2 diabetes.

And it means you're more likely to develop, or to add to atheroma, the fatty deposits that can line your arteries, causing Cardiovascular Disease.

A healthy diet isn't about eating 'rabbit food', skipping meals, or depriving yourself of the food you love. It's about giving your body the best possible fuel, so that it, and you, can function well.