Blood pressure is a silent killer
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the leading cause of heart attacks and strokes in South Africa yet three out of four people do not even know they have it.
According to Professor Alta Schutte, from the Southern African Hypertension Society, one of the most important aspects of high blood pressure is that in most individuals there are no clear symptoms.
Individuals may feel normal and healthy and, as a result, are not aware they are at a very high risk for stroke or heart attack, which is why hypertension is called the silent killer.
“This is why all individuals are strongly encouraged to get their blood pressure tested and know their numbers,” said Prof Schutte.
This decision was based on global statistics, indicating that only 50 per cent of those with hypertension were aware they had high blood pressure, that only a few populations have an awareness rate of more than 75 per cent and the critical fact that high blood pressure substantively increases the risk for stroke, heart attack, heart failure and kidney disease.
In some populations awareness is lower than 10 per cent.
To increase awareness of hypertension diagnosis, there are two critical components:
One is to establish high capacity community screening programmes for blood pressure in those at risk.
Two is to promote routine measurement of blood pressure by healthcare professionals at all clinical encounters.
Moreover, an important initial step to control hypertension and help achieve the United Nations 2025 goal of a 25 per cent reduction in uncontrolled hypertension is to improve hypertension diagnosis.
Jessica Byrne, a dietitian at The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, said an estimated 11 million South Africans live with hypertension.
“South Africa has one of the highest hypertension rates worldwide. A recent international survey found eight in 10 adults, over the age of 50 in South Africa, have high blood pressure.
“This was the highest of the six countries measured and the highest prevalence ever measured worldwide,” she said.
She added that heart disease and strokes are the second leading cause of death in South Africa, responsible for one in six deaths, or 220 deaths per day.
Byrne attributed the high prevalence of hypertension in South Africa to a combination of unhealthy lifestyles, a genetic link between blood pressure and salt intake and lack of awareness about the condition.
“Most South Africans are only vaguely aware of the risk factors which contribute to hypertension and therefore cannot identify whether they are at risk. There are a few risk factors beyond our control such as age, family history of hypertension and being diabetic. However, our unhealthy lifestyles are largely to blame. What we eat, being overweight or obese, smoking, drinking too much alcohol and stress are some of the contributing factors,” she said.
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Too much salt is a key driver of hypertension. “Many South Africans eat too much salt. More than half of the salt we eat, is added by manufacturers during the processing of foods. Often these foods don’t look or taste salty. The rest of the salt we eat comes from salt we add during cooking and salt sprinkled on at the table,” said Byrne.
She said bread is the biggest contributor to South Africans’ salt intake. Other foods with a lot of hidden salt include breakfast cereals, processed meat, flavouring, savoury snacks, margarine and butter.
Byrne urged people to read the ingredients list and nutritional information table on the food packaging.
“If you see ‘salt’, ‘MSG’ or any ingredient with the word ‘sodium’ listed as one of the first three ingredients, the product is likely to be high in salt,” she said.