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Heart disease and stroke are the top two causes of death — and among the leading causes of disability — in Australia

Cardiovascular disease refers to a class of diseases that involve the heart and/or blood vessels (e.g. arteries). The main types of CVD in Australia are coronary artery disease, stroke and heart failure/cardiomyopathy, but less common forms include rheumatic and congenital heart disease.

CVD is commonly related to atherosclerosis, a process whereby fatty deposits ('plaques') form in your arteries, causing them to narrow and possibly block completely.

When atherosclerosis affects the major arteries in the body it can cause a heart attack, stroke or peripheral arterial disease.

By recognising the warning signs and symptoms and seeking medical care promptly, you may be able to avert or reduce the severity of a heart attack or stroke.

The facts

In Australia, cardiovascular disease (CVD) causes around 50,000 deaths per year — more than any other disease group.

The burden of CVD is expected to increase over the coming decades due to our ageing population and increase in some risk factors such as obesity and diabetes.

Am I at risk of cardiovascular disease?

There are many risk factors linked to cardiovascular disease. Many of these can be addressed by adopting a healthy lifestyle.

  • smoking
  • male gender
  • diabetes
  • high blood cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • physical inactivity
  • excess weight
  • unhealthy eating
  • increasing age
  • high resting heart rate
  • kidney disease
  • depression and stress
  • family history of heart disease or stroke.


What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when a blood clot blocks the blood vessel (artery) that supplies blood to the heart muscle itself. Angina (temporary chest pain or discomfort) is often a warning sign of an impending heart attack!

Recognising a heart attack

The common symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • Chest pain which may feel like tightness, pressure, heaviness, fullness or squeezing. It can range from mild to severe and occur suddenly or develop over minutes.
  • Pain or discomfort in the neck and throat (causing a choking feeling), jaw, shoulders and back, left arm (causing a heavy and useless feeling) and into the wrist and hands.

Often, these symptoms are accompanied by:

  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • nausea or vomiting
  • sweating
  • dizziness and feeling light-headed
  • a feeling of heartburn or indigestion
  • collapse.

Important information

If you, or somebody you are with, gets symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, this is an emergency and must not be ignored. It is important to call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and get straight to a hospital — immediate action can save a life! Please seek medical advice if you experience or suffer any of the signs and symptoms listed in this brochure.

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted by either:

  • a blood clot blocking the blood vessel (artery) that supplies blood to the brain ('ischaemic stroke')
  • a blood vessel in the brain bursting ('haemorrhagic stroke').

A transient ischaemic attack (TIA) is referred to as a 'mini-stroke'. TIAs disrupt blood flow to the brain caused by atherosclerosis or a tiny clot. TIA symptoms are similar to stroke but shorter; they are therefore a strong warning sign of an impending stroke.

If not treated promptly, a stroke can lead to immediate death or long-term disabilities including paralysis on one side of the body.

Recognising a stroke or TIA

The common symptoms of a stroke are:

  • Weakness, numbness or paralysis of the face or one or both arms or legs.
  • Trouble speaking or understanding.
  • Dizziness, loss of balance or unexplained fall.
  • Blurred or loss of vision in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden and severe headache, different to any usual pattern of headaches.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Confusion.
  • Unconsciousness.

What is peripheral arterial disease?

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) occurs when blood flow in the blood vessels (arteries) that supply blood to the limbs, especially the legs and feet, is restricted.

Many people with PAD don’t have any warning signs or symptoms but are more likely to have atherosclerosis in arteries of the heart and brain.

Recognising PAD

The common symptoms of peripheral arterial disease are:
  • Pain, numbness, aching and heaviness in the legs and buttocks during exercise (called 'claudication').
  • Cramping, slow healing and painful sores, and a weak or no pulse in the legs and feet.
  • Poor nail and hair growth on toes and legs.
  • Pale or blue skin colour changes (indicating tissue death) that could eventually lead to gangrene and amputation.
  • Different temperatures in each leg.
  • Erectile dysfunction in men.

Reducing the impact of cardiovascular disease

To relieve symptoms of, treat, or reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease:

  • Enjoy a healthy diet and lifestyle plan and don’t smoke.
  • Take medication (if prescribed by a health professional), to lower cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk of clots forming that block arteries (e.g. aspirin).
  • Undergo surgery to re-open (e.g. angioplasty), repair or replace (e.g. bypass surgery) damaged arteries, if surgical treatment is recommended.

Download this fact sheet

The contents of this fact sheet were last updated in 2013


While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of this material, the information is provided on the basis that persons undertake responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of its content. In particular, readers should seek independent professional medical advice from their general practitioner or specialist in relation to their own individual circumstance or condition before making any decisions based on this information. The material also includes summarised guidelines or recommendations based on information provided by third parties. The Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute disclaims to the extent permitted by law, all liability including negligence for claims of losses, expenses, damages and costs that the reader may incur (or suffer) from acting on or refraining from action as a result of all information in these materials.

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