Straight from the heart: tips to strengthen your heart health

Did you know three-quarters of Australians are at risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD)?
The good news is there are steps you can take to keep your heart healthy1. Whatever your risk, simple dietary and lifestyle changes can greatly lower your chances of heart disease.

The gender gap in heart disease

CVD – an umbrella term that includes heart and blood vessel diseases (e.g. heart attacks and stroke) – takes one life every 12 minutes in Australia1.

And while equal numbers of men and women experience heart attacks every year2, women are more likely to be misdiagnosed and less likely to be treated in hospital compared to men3,4. This might be related to differences in how men and women experience heart attacks, which may lead to some women’s symptoms being overlooked3,4

Regardless of these variations across genders, knowing the specific symptoms can be lifesaving.

Looking out for the signs 

There are some core similarities and differences in the way women and men may experience heart attacks. Chest discomfort or pain (angina) is the most common symptom for both genders5,6. However, women are more likely to experience other symptoms besides chest pain. And women under 50 years of age may experience no chest pain at all6,7.

Below is a table comparing the heart attack symptoms typically experienced by men and women.

Most typical symptoms in men5,8 Most typical symptoms in women5,8
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea. 
  • Back, neck or jaw pain or tightness
  • Burning sensation in the chest that is similar to heartburn
  • Chest discomfort
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Sweating or a cold sweat.

While these are the typical symptoms for men and women, anyone having a heart attack can experience these – so if you have any of the above symptoms, head to your local emergency department or call 000.

A person’s gender also influences the way test results are interpreted. For instance, a blood test used to diagnose a heart attack (cardiac troponin) has different diagnostic reference ranges for men and women. Specifically, women can have troponin concentrations two times lower than men6,9.

What’s your risk?

In addition to general CVD risk factors that apply to everyone, researchers have now discovered women-specific risk factors.

The general CVD risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and smoking or tobacco use6.

Women-specific CVD risk factors include polycystic ovary syndrome, premature menopause, some pregnancy complications, autoimmune disorders and their treatments, some cancer treatments and depression6. Oestrogen, a heart-protective hormone that is produced in larger quantities by women, is linked to some of these risk factors2. Stages of life associated with lower oestrogen levels in women, such as after menopause, have been correlated with increases in heart disease2

Safeguard your heart health

There are some simple changes you can make to reduce your cardiac risk factors and strengthen your heart:

  • Prioritise routine heart health check-ups with your GPheart health checks can help identify early signs of CVD, allowing you and your doctor to begin treating it before it progresses10
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet – this includes increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables; for more detailed advice, read our ‘Matters of the heart’ article
  • Engage in regular physical activity – exercise strengthens your muscles (including your heart muscle), so aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity a week11
  • Quit smoking – smoking damages your blood vessels, which increases your heart attack risk; if you’re considering quitting, you can receive free support with Quitline12
  • Stay informed – explore features within Zurich Evolve to sustain, maintain or regain health, whatever your journey and learn ways to make health a habit with LiveWell
  • Review your health and life insurance cover – as life changes, it’s crucial to make sure your insurance continues to suit your needs
  • Participate in heart disease research – the more that researchers learn about heart health in different population groups, the more accurate and personalised healthcare you and future generations can receive2.

Have a heart-to-heart with your doctor

The best way to protect yourself from heart disease is to book a heart health check with your GP.

Specifically, the Australian Heart Foundation recommends annual heart health checks for people aged 45–79 years, diabetics 35 years and over, and First Nations people 30 years and over10. Heart health checks are fully subsidised by Medicare10.

With the support of your doctor, and by making some lifestyle changes, you can keep your heart in better shape than ever.


1. Heart Foundation, ‘Key statistics: Cardiovascular disease’, 2024.

2. Heart Foundation, ‘What do women want? Better heart health’, 2022.

3. Heart Research Institute, ‘Heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular disease in Australia: Statistics and facts’, 2024.

4. Heart Foundation, ‘Women and heart disease’, 2024.

5. Heart Foundation, ‘What is a heart attack?’, 2024.

6. Heart Foundation, ‘Cardiovascular disease risk factors and heart attack warning signs in women’, 2024.

7. Garcia M, Mulvagh S, Merz C, Buring J, Manson J. ‘Cardiovascular Disease in Women: Clinical Perspectives’, Circulation Research, 118(8):1273–93, 2016, doi: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.116.307547.

8. Heart Research Australia, ‘Women and Heart Disease’, 2024.

9. Shah A, Griffiths M, Lee K, McAllister D, Hunter A, Ferry A, Cruikshank A, Reid A, Stoddart M, Strachan F, Walker S, Collinson P, Apple F, Gray A, Fox K, Newby D, Mills N. ‘High sensitivity cardiac troponin and the under-diagnosis of myocardial infarction in women: prospective cohort study’, BMJ, 350:g7873, 2015, doi:

10. Heart Foundation, ‘Time to book a Heart Health Check?’, 2024.

11.  Heart Foundation, ‘Staying active for better heart health’, 2024.

12. Heart Foundation, ‘Keep your heart healthy’, 2023.