September is Heart Awareness Month. Heart disease and strokes are the second highest cause of death in South Africa (only HIV can beat this killer!), so this is definitely something we can’t brush off. A healthy heart literally is a matter of life and death. While we’re all aware that to have a healthy heart, we need to eat well, exercise and avoid a few things, things can get a bit more complicated than that. Here, the heart disease risk factors you need to be aware of and what you should be doing to prevent it…
Meet The Expert: Dr Annarie van Rensburg is a Specialist Cardiologist at Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital in Sunningdale, Blouberg
Heart health remains a priority for healthcare providers and an epidemic in South Africa. According to the SA Heart and Stroke Foundation, 30% of the population has some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD). And while we often think of heart disease as something that affects only the elderly, that’s no longer the case. Per the SA Heart and Stroke Foundation, more than half of deaths among people under the age of 65 are attributed to heart disease. A third of people are hypertensive, too.
“The heart disease risk factors for women are similar to those of men,” Van Rensburg begins. But when it comes to prevention, she can’t underline enough the importance of looking after your body and your health. Here’s what you need to know…
Risk Factor 1: Smoking
Smoking is a BIG risk factor when it comes to heart health. We already know this, but here’s a reminder that you are jeopardising your own life every time you light up. “Women who smoke 20 cigarettes a day have six times increased risk of having a heart attack, while with men the risk is three times higher.” So it’s even riskier for us girls. Our advice: quit now, while you’re ahead.
The why: every time you light up, the chemicals inside cigarettes clog the blood and arteries inside your heart. Think vaping is A-OK? Think again. A 2020 review found that vaping stiffens the arteries and creates higher blood pressure, which puts undue stress on the heart. Toss that vape.
Risk Factor 2: Diabetes
If you suffer from diabetes, there’s a chance that your heart may be at risk. If it’s your lifestyle choices that have led to diabetes, such as a sedentary lifestyle, then here’s the wake-up call: it’s time to get active! “Having diabetes is also associated with a greater risk of developing heart disease in women than in men,” says Van Rensburg.
The why? Per the Centers for Disease Control, “high blood sugar can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart.” Scary stuff.
Risk Factor 3: High Cholesterol
High cholesterol can be genetic, but it’s typically associated with obesity. Again, a sedentary lifestyle can be your biggest enemy. A healthy diet and keeping active are not only necessary for you to look your best, they’re also the doctor’s recommended remedy for preventing heart disease.
The why? When there’s too much cholesterol in the blood, they form plaque deposits on the artery walls of your heart. This could cause an artery to become blocked or the plaque could even rupture.
Risk Factor 4: Hypertension
High blood pressure is known as a silent killer because there are often no symptoms. Regular blood pressure check-ups are advisable and, again, a healthy diet is key. Read: fresh fruit and veg, and cut back on processed food high in salt, sugar and oil.
The why? Having hypertension causes your heart to work harder to fulfil its tasks, pumping blood throughout your body to keep you going. And leaving your high blood pressure unchecked means you’re creating a situation where your heart could cop out, leading to heart disease.
Risk Factor 5: Advancing Age
“The risk of developing heart disease increases dramatically once a woman is post-menopausal,” says Rensburg. “If there is a family history of premature coronary artery disease in family members below the age of 55 (men) or (65) women, or a family history of high cholesterol, the risk is also significantly increased.”
The why? Over time, our hearts become stiffer with age, leading to high blood pressure, which puts stress on the heart.
While we can’t reverse the ageing process, we can take steps to age healthily, which includes every doctor’s order: eating well and exercising regularly.
What Should All Women Do To Lower The Risk Of Heart Disease?
“Lead a healthy lifestyle,” Van Rensburg stresses again. This includes getting in a sweat session at least five times a week. “Maintain a healthy body weight,” she continues, “a BMI between 19 and 25.” Smoking is a big no-no. Just don’t do it – it’s not worth risking your heart. “Have your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar checked regularly,” Van Rensburg concludes. The intervals at which this should be checked increase as you age, but it is necessary for everyone. “Everyone should have it checked, then discuss with their doctor what the recommended treatment is or when the next visit should be scheduled.”