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Heart attacks and strokes - You can reduce your risk


Most heart attacks and stokes can be prevented. A number of unhealthy lifestyle choices make the chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke more likely, but you CAN reduce your risk - eat healthy food, stay active and don’t smoke.
What causes heart attacks and strokes?

Heart attacks and strokes are mainly caused by a blockage that prevents blood from flowing to the heart or the brain. The most common reason for this is a build-up of fatty deposits on the inner walls of the blood vessels that supply the heart or the brain. This makes the blood vessels narrower and less flexible. It is sometimes called hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis. The blood vessels are then more likely to get blocked by blood clots. When that happens, the blood vessels cannot supply blood to the heart and brain, which become damaged.

Heart attacks and strokes are major killers in all parts of the world, but they can often be prevented.

It is reported that nearly two-thirds of people who have a heart attack die before they can reach medical care. Even when stroke patients have access to modern, advanced treatment, 60% die or are left disabled.

Are you at risk?

Most heart attacks and strokes can be prevented. Research shows that a number of unhealthy lifestyle choices make the chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke more likely. These are called risk factors. The three most important lifestyle habits that put you at risk are:

  • smoking and other tobacco use
  • unhealthy diet
  • lack of physical activity.

These three lifestyle choices can lead to three serious physical problems:

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • high blood sugar (diabetes)
  • high blood fats (hyperlipidaemia).

These are the most important risk factors for heart attacks and strokes. In many parts of the world, tobacco use is on the rise. People are also becoming overweight in many countries as a result of being less active and eating more food that is high in fat and sugar. More and more young people and children are getting diabetes because they are overweight. We owe it to our children to change these lifestyle choices.

How poor lifestyle choices increase the risk

Tobacco smoke is full of substances that damage your lungs, blood vessels and heart. Tobacco takes the place of the oxygen in the blood that is needed by your heart and brain to work properly. Its use greatly increases your chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

Tobacco also causes cancer and lung disease, and harms babies during pregnancy. Inhaling the tobacco smoke of other smokers is as harmful as smoking yourself.

An unhealthy diet is one with:

  • food high in calories
  • too much fat, sugar or salt
  • not enough fresh fruit and vegetables.

If you eat too much and you are not active enough to burn it off, you will put on weight. You could slowly become overweight or even obese (very overweight). Being overweight can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, and high blood fat levels. All of these physical problems increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Obese people are especially at high risk if they have a lot of fat around the waist and stomach area.

An unhealthy diet often contains too much “fast food”, which is high in fat and sugar, and sugar-loaded soft drinks. Fast food is also very high in salt, which increases blood pressure.

Reduce your risk: Eat healthy, nutritious food, don’t smoke and stay active.
Lack of physical activity?

When people do not stay active, their risk of heart attack and stroke increases greatly. Physical activity lowers your risk of heart attacks and strokes by:

  • helping your body burn sugars and fats and assisting in keeping a good weight
  • lowering your blood pressure
  • increasing oxygen levels in your body
  • reducing stress
  • strengthening your heart muscle and bones
  • improving blood circulation and muscle tone.

Staying active also reduces the risk of other illnesses, such as cancer. Active people usually feel better and happier. They are likely to sleep better and to have more energy, self-confidence, and concentration. Walking, gardening, or doing housework for at least 30 minutes every day can help you prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Physical activity lowers your risk of heart attacks and strokes. It doesn't have to be strenuous sport activities, but can include walking, gardening or even doing housework for at least 30 minutes every day.

For more information visit the National Department of Health’s website: www.doh.gov.za