Stress a key factor in cardiovascular disease, a top cause of mortality across SA

Your heart health is very much within your control. Eat a balanced diet, get regular exercise, and be mindful of risk factors like stress, high blood pressure, obesity, and use of alcohol and other drugs. l PEXELS

Your heart health is very much within your control. Eat a balanced diet, get regular exercise, and be mindful of risk factors like stress, high blood pressure, obesity, and use of alcohol and other drugs. l PEXELS

Published Sep 22, 2023


Stress has various physical effects on our bodies in addition to spilling over into our emotional lives.

Additionally, you should be aware of long-term heart health problems, as well as short-term illnesses like tension headaches or muscle soreness. Numerous studies have discovered in recent years that stress might raise a person's risk of heart disease, one of the top causes of mortality in South Africa.

Stress isn't always mentioned in discussions about heart health, despite the fact that many people are aware that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heredity, and smoking are all significant risk factors for heart disease.

As you place a high priority on living a heart-healthy lifestyle, routinely assess your level of stress and take action to lower it and effectively manage it when it does arise.

Heart Awareness Month, which takes place in September, aims to increase public knowledge of cardiovascular disease in South Africa, its risk factors, and the value of leading a healthy lifestyle to fend against disease development.

The stressful environment of today can be harmful to heart health, according to Dr Marion Morkel, chief medical officer at Sanlam, and should worry all South Africans, regardless of age.

The effects of stress and cardiovascular disease

Morkel claims that stress has a substantial impact on the delicate balance of our autonomic nervous system, which guarantees that the heart beats rhythmically without conscious effort.

She goes on to say that persistent stress changes the hormonal system and causes frequent cortisol releases.

This diminishes the body's capacity to control its circulatory system over time and aids in the development of atherosclerosis (also known as plaque building, which refers to the accumulation of lipids, cholesterol, and other substances in and on the walls of the arteries).

A heart attack or stroke may occur as a result of this plaque formation's strain on the heart muscle and blood vessels.

Heart disease is a problem for everyone, not just the elderly

The primary factor contributing to the group's death and funeral claims, according to Sanlam's 2022 claims data, was cardiovascular illness. According to Morkel, anyone can have the condition and, as we get older, the risk of developing it rises.

According to Sanlam's records, payments have been made for prophylactic procedures like angioplasties and conditions like myocardial infarction (MI) in people as young as their 30s.

She continues by stating that current research shows obesity, which was once primarily linked to wealthier countries, is now a worldwide issue affecting even low-income nations as a result of the availability of unhealthy, processed foods.

Another important risk factor for non-communicable illnesses like heart attacks and strokes is this one.

The continuing severity of non-communicable diseases is highlighted by the insurer’s 2022 claims data, with cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of both death (21%) and disability (23%) claims.

According to the group's research, more than 25% of death claims and 55% of disability claims were from individuals under the age of 55. In addition, claims for permanent disability increased by 6% for South Africans between the ages of 26 and 35, underscoring the need of coverage for this demographic.

The possibility of losing their ability to produce an income is the most significant financial risk that younger South Africans, who still have many working years ahead of them, face.

Regular health check can also assist in finding out any potential sickness and disease and help you prevent future sickness. l PEXELS

South African youth who have a hereditary susceptibility should take precautions

Young persons with a family history of cardiovascular disease still have hope, according to Morkel. Regularly assessing their blood pressure, cholesterol, resting heart rate, and glucose levels must be a priority for these people.

“While genetics play a vital role, lifestyle changes can delay or even prevent the onset of these diseases. Prioritising a balanced diet, regular exercise, and stress management can greatly alter one's trajectory”, she said, in a statement.

Make living a better, less stressful lifestyle a priority

Sanlam product actuary, Petrie Marx, advises individuals to embrace Heart Awareness Month as the impetus to take preventive measures, because the majority of South Africans have stressful lives.

Making better lifestyle decisions and learning about heart health and preventative actions are part of this.

The website of the Heart and Stroke Foundation offers a wealth of knowledge that can assist people in making their heart health a priority.

For example, adopting a healthy lifestyle and managing illnesses like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes can help people avoid up to 80% of cardiac diseases and strokes before the age of 70.

Stress causes the body to go through physiological changes that can affect heart health. The brain is where it all begins. The amygdala, a region of the brain in charge of processing emotions, alerts your nervous system to your distress when you experience a stressful trigger. Exercise is a good stress reliever. l PEXELS

Protect your future health with adequate insurance

Financial hardships affect a lot of South Africans, making comprehensive coverage unlikely. Marx advises South Africans to buy insurance while they are still young, healthy, and have not yet been afflicted in the same way as their family members have been in order to combat this, especially for those with a family history of cardiovascular disease.

Marx added: “People don't have to sacrifice comprehensive severe illness coverage completely. They can layer it with a portion of cardiovascular-only cover that incorporates a range of cardiovascular causes. That way, they still have some comprehensive coverage with additional coverage for cardiovascular disease.

“The cover should not be limited to severe illness, but rather a balanced portfolio including death and disability cover, as cardiovascular is also a main cause of claims for those benefits. I always suggest people consult with a qualified financial planner to personalise a unique solution to their specific needs and budget.”

The urgent need to address the rising cardiovascular disease incidence among younger South Africans is highlighted by Heart Awareness Month.

Beyond genetics, proactive measures like routine health examinations, a balanced diet and stress management can help South Africans prioritise their health from an early age.