Young South Africans face rising hypertension: analysing risk factors and prevention strategies

Lack of physical activity also increases the risk of being overweight. Picture: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Lack of physical activity also increases the risk of being overweight. Picture: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Published May 22, 2024


On the back of World Hypertension Day, celebrated on May 17, the spotlight has been on a silent killer: hypertension.

This health condition is a leading cause of early deaths around the globe.

The World Health Organization says around 1.28 billion adults aged 30 to 79 are struggling with hypertension. What's more alarming is that nearly half of these individuals (46%) don't even know they have it.

In light of World Hypertension Day, Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) dug into their claims data from the last five years (2019 to 2023), uncovering a 22% increase in hypertension cases among their members.

Remarkably, hypertension ranks as the top chronic condition diagnosed within their community, affecting men and women equally.

Dr. Noluthando Nematswerani, the Chief Clinical Officer at Discovery Health, highlights a simple yet often neglected fact: checking one's blood pressure is quick and easy.

Despite this, a shocking number of people with high blood pressure, nearly half, remain in the dark about their health status.

Though it's generally perceived that hypertension is more of an old men’s sickness. It's the younger members of the community who are now increasingly being diagnosed. Members aged 25 to 39, have observed a new trend of hypertension diagnosis growing by 5% annually.

This has resulted in a 23% hike in cases from 2019 to 2023, Nematswerani points out. Specifically, in 2023, the age group of 25 to 29 has seen a significant rise in these numbers, shedding light on a rather concerning development.

Why is hypertension called a “silent” condition?

Millions unknowingly battle with a condition that shows no clear warning signs, said Nematswerani, stressing the silent peril of hypertension.

While hypertension might cause headaches, difficulty breathing, dizziness, chest discomfort, fluttering hearts, or nosebleeds for some, these symptoms often don't raise alarms for chronic high blood pressure.

This absence of direct symptoms is a crucial reason why checking blood pressure regularly is a lifesaver.

"Simply pressing on the upper arm could save your life," Nematswerani said, pointing out the ease and affordability of blood pressure checks.

Adopting a healthy diet is one way to reduce the risk of getting hypertension. Picture: Jane Trang Doan /Pexels

These checks can be done by a nurse at pharmacies or clinics, by a general practitioner, or at home with a monitor recommended by healthcare professionals.

Recorded in millimetres of mercury (mm Hg), blood pressure numbers present as one over another, like 140/90. The upper, or first number, measures the force your heart exerts on artery walls when beating, known as systolic pressure.

The lower, or second number, measures the pressure when the heart rests between beats, called diastolic pressure.

Nematswerani added: "A normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg."

She further explained that hypertension is confirmed if blood pressure consistently hits 140/90 mm Hg or higher on separate occasions. A reading of 180/120 mm Hg or more is dangerous and demands immediate medical intervention.

“The higher the blood pressure and the longer high blood pressure goes uncontrolled, the more damage it can cause to blood vessels and organs,” warned Nematswerani.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to complications such as:

Heart attack: The arteries can become blocked and prevent blood flow to the heart muscle.

Stroke: Blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the brain become blocked or burst.

Heart failure: High blood pressure makes the heart work harder. This can cause the heart to get bigger and struggle to pump enough blood to the body.

Vision loss: Blood vessels in the eyes can get strained or damaged.

Sexual dysfunction: High blood pressure can lead to erectile dysfunction (not being able to have or maintain an erection) in men and may cause a lower sex drive in women.

Pregnancy-related complications: Untreated high blood pressure in pregnancy can cause life-threatening complications for the mother and baby.

What puts you at risk of hypertension?

The biggest risk factors for hypertension are:

Being overweight or obese

The more you weigh, the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues.

Family history

High blood pressure tends to run in families, with a genetic predisposition putting certain people at higher risk.

Physical inactivity

Lack of physical activity also increases the risk of being overweight. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction, which means there's more force on your arteries.


The older you are, the higher your risk of hypertension.


Hypertension affects men more than women up to age 64, and women more than men from age 65.


Black people tend to develop high blood pressure more often than people of other racial backgrounds.

High-stress levels

High levels of stress can lead to a temporary increase in blood pressure.


The chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow and increase your risk of heart disease. Second-hand smoke can also increase your risk of heart disease.

Excessive alcohol intake

Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart.

Making unhealthy food choices

This includes eating too much salt, as too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure.

“If hypertension is picked up early enough, it is relatively easy to manage. That is why we encourage everyone to go for routine health screenings including blood pressure measurements, at least once a year.”