Picture: tourmedica.co.uk Healthy lifestyle choices significantly decrease the risk of heart attacks

Cardiovascular disease is a major cause of death in South Africa. 

Heart disease, in particular, features prominently among the conditions that contributed to a significant rise in deaths from non-communicable diseases in 2015, according to Statistics South Africa.

In the same year, 7.5 percent of all recorded deaths were attributed to various forms of heart disease across different population groups.
 
But neither heart attacks nor death as the result of a heart attack are inevitable. The majority of heart attacks can be avoided by understanding and managing the risk factors for coronary artery disease.

It is possible to survive a heart attack and regain good health by getting the right treatment fast.
 
Medical organisations are using the World Heart Day on 29 to raise awareness and highlight the seriousness of heart disease for all sections of South Africa’s population to assist people to take heart health into their own hands.
 
“We want every South African to understand the link between lifestyle and cardiovascular disease,” says Dr Shanil Naidoo, Medical Director of Boehringer Ingelheim. “Healthy lifestyle choices significantly decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes and have the further benefit of improving an individual’s quality of life.”
 
Spot the risks and neutralise them

A heart attack occurs when an artery that carries oxygen to the heart becomes blocked, usually by a blood clot. The likelihood of such a blockage increases when the arteries are narrowed by fatty cholesterol deposits or plaques. This condition is referred to as coronary artery disease.
 
There are a number of factors (listed below) that increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease and suffering a heart attack:

  • Behavioural risks
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Medical risks
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • High cholesterol
  • Other risk factors
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Advancing age
Giving up smoking, modifying our diets and increasing physical activity – where necessary – are all within our power as individuals. It is critical to manage diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol under the supervision of a medical professional, with appropriate medication where necessary.
 
“Many South Africans have uncontrolled or undiagnosed hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol,” says Dr Naidoo.
 
A study in 2014 showed that 78% of South Africans aged 50 years and older had hypertension. Less than 40% of those surveyed were aware of their diagnosis, and only 7% had their hypertension under control.
 
Dr Naidoo cautions: “These individuals are placing themselves at an even higher risk of having heart attacks or strokes.”
 
While we cannot change our genetics or age, it is important to understand that we need to be disciplined about lifestyles choices which include regular medical check-ups.
 
Recognise a heart attack

Speed of reaction is absolutely critical to surviving a heart attack and regaining good health. In some cases, a heart attack causes virtually instant death. But in many cases survival and recovery are perfectly possible – provided you know what to do and get to work instantly.
 
What does a heart attack feel like?

There is heavy pressure, tightness, unusual discomfort or crushing pain in the centre of the chest. This may spread to the shoulders, arms, neck or jaw.

It may last more than 15 minutes and could stop or weaken and then return. This may be accompanied by sweating, nausea, faintness or shortness of breath. 

The pulse could be rapid or weak.

Important things to note

Women may have different symptoms to men, with more pronounced nausea, dizziness and anxiety. A heart attack can be silent and produce no signs or symptoms.

A sharp stabbing pain in the left side of the chest is usually not heart pain.
 
What to do if you experience or witness a heart attack

If unexplained chest pain lasts for more than a few minutes, do not delay, do not try and figure out the cause, call an ambulance and state that you are dealing with a suspected heart attack.

If the ambulance is delayed, access private transport to get to the emergency department of the nearest hospital. On arrival, advise the staff this is a suspected heart attack.

If you have been trained and you are near a person who loses consciousness due to these symptoms, perform chest compressions at a rate of about 100 per minute.