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Heart awareness

I recently chatted to Prof Pamela Naidoo, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa who reminded me that September is Heart Awareness Month. This is an important reminder for us to look after our heart health by prioritising screening.

Here’s what I want you to know about your heart

I’m feeling quite positive at the moment, maybe because the weather is getting warmer, the increasing uptake of vaccinations for COVID-19, lower COVID-19 infection rates… It’s adding up to a great summer if we continue on this trajectory.

With the last quarter of the year closing in, I’m reminded of Vitality’s research into preventive screening among members. The data shows that the rate of going for health-risk checks decreased, in line with global trends

  • A World Health Organization survey, completed by 105 countries between May and July 2020, and repeated at the start of 2021, found that prevention and treatment services for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, have been partially or completely disrupted in almost all countries since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
  • The main causes were patients not seeing healthcare providers, followed by planned care being cancelled, and healthcare staff being redistributed for COVID-19-specific services.
    Similarly, a Vitality survey late in 2020 found that 42% of respondents had had no health checks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa, mainly due to fear of contracting COVID-19.

This is concerning as NCDs kill 41 million people each year globally (equivalent to 70% of all deaths worldwide).

Prof Pamela reminded me that World Heart Day is marked globally on 29 September. Prof Naidoo says:

  • Cardiovascular disease remains the world’s number-one killer, resulting in 17.9 million deaths a year.
  • In South Africa, cardiovascular disease is responsible for almost 1 in 6 deaths, it claims more lives than all cancers combined.
  • Every day, 225 South Africans die from heart disease and stroke.
  • Moreover, with the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals with obesity and NCDs (like high blood pressure and diabetes) are at an increased risk of severe COVID-19 disease.

But there is plenty we can do.

The key risk factors that drive the high mortality and morbidity of NCDs include both ‘modifiable’ and ‘non-modifiable’ factors: things we can control and things that we cannot control. Non-modifiable factors include a family history and tendency to high blood pressure and increased cholesterol levels, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. What interests me are the modifiable factors, which include our health behaviours. Research has shown that these factors account for the bulk of the morbidity and mortality associated with NCDs. For example, 80% of heart disease can be prevented by healthy living: being physically active, eating healthily, and avoiding tobacco smoking and excessive alcohol intake.

As this year’s focus for Heart Awareness Month is cholesterol, Prof Naidoo shares these tips for healthy eating to keep cholesterol levels within a healthy range:

  • Choose foods rich in healthy fats. These include nuts and seeds, nut butter, avocado, and fatty fish.
  • Limit unhealthy fats found in fatty and processed meats, chicken skin, butter, cream and hard cheeses, coconut or palm oil, pies, pastries, biscuits, crackers, fast foods and deep-fried potato or slap chips.
  • Eat high-fibre foods. Soluble fibre, especially, helps to lower cholesterol levels and can be found in foods such as oats, lentils, beans, vegetables, and fruit.
  • Limit the intake of sugar and excessive salt.

For more guidance on which foods are healthy, look for the Vitality HealthyFood benefit indicator or the Heart Foundation’s Heart Mark in store.

She states further “It is important to know your health measures, even if you feel well, and only screening enables that. In the case of cholesterol, most people with high cholesterol feel perfectly healthy with no warning signs. The only way of knowing is to have your health check done and know your numbers.”

It is important for everyone to visit their nurse or doctor and complete a health check. Motivate your loved ones to do the same. As a wellness and behaviour change programme, Vitality leverages behavioural science principles to motivate members to go for screening tests by giving them up to 22 500 Vitality points for having a Vitality Health Check if the measures are in the normal range. This life-saving collection of checks looks at your cholesterol and glucose levels, blood pressure, and includes a weight assessment and a non-smoker’s declaration.

I encourage you to go out for your Health Check if you haven’t. It’s a great form of self-care: if you do a health check and all is well, it is great to have reassurance. If you have to tweak your lifestyle, it can be the push you need. Even if the results are concerning, I can assure you that early detection results in better clinical outcomes.

While getting fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is a crucial step in enabling us to access screenings safely, personal protective behaviours still play an important role in minimising the spread of COVID:

  • Stay home if you are feeling unwell.
  • Book for your Health Check to limit your waiting time
  • Schedule your screening visit during non-peak hours
  • Wear a face mask when leaving your home and throughout the check-up
  • Sanitise your hands regularly
  • Keep a physical distance of 1.5 meters from others


This article was written by Dr Mosima Mabunda


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