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When was the last time you had your blood pressure checked, or encouraged your loved ones to do so too? Nearly half of adults with hypertension – high blood pressure – are unaware that they have it. Apart from more than R10 billion in healthcare costs per annum in South Africa, we lose loved ones who could have lived long, healthy lives if only they had screened and intervened early, writes Dr Mosima Mabunda, Head of Wellness at Discovery Vitality

I’d like you to think of yourself and one other person close to you – your best friend, partner, sibling or parent. Statistically, either you or that person could have hypertension. Furthermore, you or the person may not be aware of it.

In my life, that person is my mother. Now 67, she was diagnosed young, at age 35 during an annual screening check. She was otherwise well with no health concerns and had no symptoms. If she hadn’t checked, she may have found out too late and I would have been sharing a different story today. My mum has managed her hypertension well over the years, complementing her prescribed chronic medication with regular exercise (running) and healthy eating.

But there are too many who don’t know. This is the problem with hypertension. You may not be aware you have it until it’s too late, which is why clinicians preach screening, screening and more screening. I love the theme for World Hypertension Day, celebrated on 17 May: Measure Your Blood Pressure Accurately, Control It, Live Longer. I could not say it more simply. 

Despite efforts to minimise the effects, the numbers are startling:

It’s a matter of life or death – and an economic burden

Hypertension can cause serious damage to the heart as it has to work harder to pump blood to the body, which can lead to heart enlargement and heart failure. Excessively raised blood pressure also leads to hardening of the arteries over time, which decreases blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart, potentially leading to heart attacks. It can also result in blockages or tears in the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the brain. This is what causes a stroke. In addition, hypertension can cause kidney damage, leading to kidney failure.

A recent study also shows the heavy economic burden it creates in the country:

  • Direct healthcare costs were estimated to be R 10.1 billion annually, while societal costs (lost productivity due to illness) were estimated to be R 29.4 billion annually.
  • Direct healthcare costs were greater for women compared to men, while societal costs were greater for men compared to women

The burden on our bodies individually – and collectively on our healthcare system – is one that none of us can afford. Especially given simple, accessible screening and treatment interventions.

Harnessing behavioural economics to encourage screenings

Hypertension is often called a silent killer because it may have no warning signs or symptoms. Many people with hypertension only have symptoms when their blood pressure is very high, or they have a serious complication such as a heart attack or stroke. Hence, it is crucial that we measure our blood pressure regularly.

Vitality rewards members for adopting healthy behaviours that help prevent hypertension, including discounts on healthy food, as well as gym membership fees, access to race events and more to help them get more active. Importantly, members can receive cash back for purchasing at-home blood pressure machines on the HealthyCare benefit at Dis-Chem and Clicks. This enables members with hypertension to monitor their blood pressure at home.

Vitality members also get an incentive of up to 22,500 Vitality points for doing a Vitality Health Check, with our data showing our most engaged members are 10 times more likely to do a Vitality Health Check. This is lifesaving.

What you can do about it today

There are some risk factors for hypertension we can’t change (for example, family history or age) but there is plenty we can do – improving our diets (eating less salt and saturated fat, and more fruits and vegetables), being physically active, not smoking or abusing alcohol and reaching and maintaining a healthy weight all have a positive impact on reducing our risk of high blood pressure.

But the first step is to make an appointment to #KnowYourNumbers. By getting screened, you can detect and control hypertension early, reducing your chances of future complications.

If you are a Vitality member, have a Vitality Health Check each year. You can do this at Discovery Stores, pharmacies in the Vitality Wellness Network or accredited Vitality Wellness Centres, or you can request a Vitality Health Check to be done in the comfort of your own home. It’s a simple and convenient set of essential health screening tests, including blood pressure. Click here to book your health check. DM/MC/ML

Dr Mosima Mabunda, Head of Wellness at Discovery Vitality

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  • Even more alarming is that people who have hypertension are not offered a thorough and regular check-up of their kidneys. Hypertension & kidney disease are two sides of the same disease. It is time that general practitioners offer kidney check-ups as well as routine blood pressure check-ups.

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