Don’t be a stastic

By admin
31 January 2014

After HIV/Aids, heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of deaths in South Africa. Having high cholesterol means you’re at a greater risk of getting heart disease or having a stroke. Here’s what you should know.


What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol, produced by the liver, is normally soft and fatty and is an important substance for cell membranes and hormones. “It’s not cholesterol itself though but a high level of cholesterol that’s a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases that could lead to heart attacks or strokes,” explains Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, chief executive of the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA.

“The liver produces all the cholesterol our body needs but when we eat too many foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol [mostly foods derived from animals] it can raise blood cholesterol levels,” she says. This in turn is dangerous to your health because it can slowly build up in the inner walls of arteries. “If high blood cholesterol levels are left untreated it can, together with other substances, eventually form plaque – a thick, hard deposit that can narrow your arteries and make them less flexible. This process is called atherosclerosis. If a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery that feeds the heart or brain, it can result in a heart attack or stroke.”

Types of cholesterol

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good” cholesterol that helps to transport fats to the liver to be eliminated from the body, instead of being deposited in the arteries. Increased levels of HDL help to prevent against strokes and heart disease.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” cholesterol because it transports fats into artery walls. If there’s too much LDL in your blood, hardened fat deposits can build up on the insides of your blood vessels.
  • Triglycerides are another type of “bad” cholesterol that can cause blood clots.

Could you have high cholesterol?

“Dietary, physical activity and lifestyle changes are critical. Depending on your risk profile and your cholesterol levels, your healthcare professional may recommend diet and lifestyle changes and/or medication,” says Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, chief executive of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.

Here are a few guidelines:

Diet. If you follow an unhealthy diet high in saturated fats such as those found in butter, fullcream dairy products and fatty meats, as well as high in trans fats found in commercial cooking oils, shortening, baked goods and other processed foods, you’re at greater risk. Consumption of animal parts such as livers and kidneys and shellfish such as prawns is also unhealthy, as these foods are high in cholesterol, especially if you don’t eat enough fibre found in foods such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain breads, cereals and pasta. Physical activity. If you don’t exercise for at least 150 minutes a week you’re at an even greater risk. Physical activity doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym though – gardening, brisk walking or vigorous house-cleaning also count as being active. Gender and age. Men are more at risk than women but the risk factors for both sexes increase for those older than 45. After menopause women’s LDL levels tends to rise while their HDL levels drop, putting them at the same risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack as men. Family history. “Some people have naturally high blood cholesterol levels due to a rare hereditary condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia [FH],” Dr Mungal-Singh says. “If a person is diagnosed with FH it’s important that all their family members undergo a full fasting lipogram blood test to determine if they also have FH. “In South Africa we often see people in their twenties or thirties having heart attacks as a result of FH.” High alcohol consumption. This can increase bad cholesterol levels. Smoking. Prolonged smoking hardens your arteries, can cause blood to clot and good cholesterol levels to decrease. Stress and depression. People often turn to harmful habits such as indulging in comfort food, smoking or drinking too much alcohol to try to cope with these conditions.

What your numbers should be

Total: < 5,0 mmol/l

HDL (women): > 1,2 mmol/l

HDL (men): > 1,0 mmol/l

LDL: < 3,0 mmol/l Triglycerides: < 1,7 mmol/l

 Did you know

  • Most people with high cholesterol levels feel perfectly healthy – there are usually no warning signs indicating high levels.
  • It’s expected the number of working people aged 35-64 who die as a result of heart and blood vessel diseases will increase by 41 per cent between now and 2030.
  • In South Africa the Indian community suffers the highest rate of heart and blood vessel diseases, followed by the coloured community. Blacks and whites experience the lowest rates.
  • Although the rate of heart and blood vessel diseases are the same for blacks and whites, heart attacks are much more common among whites while strokes and heart diseases linked to high blood pressure are more common among blacks.
  • Among urban black people, bad cholesterol levels have increased in recent years due to unhealthy diets and a lack of exercise, leading to obesity.
  • As many as 80 per cent of westernised South Africans have raised cholesterol levels. Of those, 20 per cent have levels high enough for them to be at risk of developing heart disease.

 Cholesterol testing

“The only way to determine your cholesterol levels is with a simple blood test. To get an  accurate result you have to fast – avoiding all food, liquids or pills – for at least nine hours before the test,” Dr Mungal-Singh says. “If you have a high total cholesterol level it’s important to know what type of cholesterol is high. The aim is to have lower LDL and triglyceride levels, and higher HDL.” Check your levels every five years from the age of 20. “But if your bad cholesterol levels are high or you have a family history of high cholesterol levels or heart disease or stroke, have it checked more regularly. Children don’t need to have their levels tested unless they have a family history.”

 Every day ... 

230 South Africans die as a result of heart and blood vessel disease*

35 South Africans die from heart attacks

67 South Africans die as a result of strokes

 37 South Africans die from heart failure

* Other forms of heart and blood vessel disease include heart rhythm problems, heart infections and congenital heart defects.

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