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WORLD HEART DAY: How can you reduce your risk?

Understanding the risks and severity of heart-related incidents is crucial for everyone. Picture: Ilona Bellotto /Unsplash

Understanding the risks and severity of heart-related incidents is crucial for everyone. Picture: Ilona Bellotto /Unsplash

Published Sep 29, 2023


Obesity rates in South Africa are on the rise, with predictions indicating a 10% increase by 2030. This means that half of the country's adult population is either overweight or obese.

However, what you may not know is that if you are part of this statistic, you have a higher risk of experiencing a potentially fatal heart-related health issue.

According to Gary Feldman, Executive Head of Healthcare Consulting at NMG Benefits, the statistics regarding cardiovascular disease in South Africa are alarming. Every single day, 225 people lose their lives due to heart-related issues.

Not only that, but every hour, five people suffer a heart attack, and 10 people have a stroke.

In the past, heart attacks and strokes were primarily associated with individuals over the age of 40. However, recent research shows that one in every five heart attack patients falls within a younger age bracket.

To understand why these heart-related incidents occur, it is important to learn about how the heart functions. The heart is an incredible muscular pump that tirelessly works to keep us alive.

It requires a constant supply of fresh oxygen delivered through its irrigation system called the coronary arteries, which are only about 3mm in diameter.

However, by consuming a diet rich in animal fats and simple carbohydrates, smoking excessively, drinking alcohol excessively, not exercising, or developing diabetes or hypertension, you may develop an obstruction in one of these narrow arteries.

This obstruction, known as plaque, can cause cramping in the heart and even lead to a heart attack if the plaque ruptures and the artery becomes completely blocked.

Not only does plaque affect the heart, but it can also develop in other arteries throughout the body. This increases the burden on the heart, leading to heart failure.

Plaque in the brain arteries can cause a stroke, while in the abdomen and pelvis, it can result in aneurysms and impotence. In the legs, plaque can cause a loss of proper blood supply, which may ultimately lead to amputation.

Understanding the risks and severity of heart-related incidents is crucial for everyone. Whether you fall into the high-risk category due to obesity or simply want to maintain good heart health, it is important to take steps to reduce these risks.

How can you reduce your risk?

Recognise and manage the risk factors

Heart disease is characterised by a wide range of conditions that can be caused by a variety of factors, according to the South African Heart and Stroke Foundation.

Specific types of heart disease such as rheumatic heart disease or congenital heart disease have specific causes such as infection or birth defects. However, most cases of heart disease develop due to gradual damage to the heart and the blood vessels.

In this case, heart disease often does not have a single cause, but rather many factors that together increase the chance of heart damage and eventually result in heart disease.

These factors that do not directly result in heart disease but contribute to its development are called risk factors.

Being overweight, not exercising regularly, and unhealthy eating habits are some of the immediate risk factors that can cause heart-related diseases.

Obese individuals require more blood to supply oxygen and nutrients to their bodies which causes an increase in blood pressure.

Other underlying factors that you need to be aware of include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, all of which can be managed by making health and lifestyle changes before medical intervention becomes necessary.

And avoiding harmful habits like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, you can significantly improve your heart's well-being.

Know the signs for early detection

Signs of heart disease include shortness of breath, especially after physical effort, chest discomfort, and a feeling of pressure that radiates to the arm, neck and jaw which gets worse with exercise and better with rest.

Other signs include swollen feet, shortness of breath when lying down, and dizziness or fainting.

“Early detection of heart disease can save your life,” said Feldman.

Talk to a healthcare professional

If you belong to a medical scheme, take some time to understand the preventative screening benefits your scheme offers you as a member. This will help enable early detection and prevention of heart-related diseases.

A healthcare professional can also provide advice on your medical aid options should you already have a pre-existing heart disease.

“Taking care of your well-being for a healthy heart is ultimately in your hands and should be a priority every day,” added Feldman.