September is Heart Awareness Month, a period dedicated to raising awareness about cardiovascular disease in South Africa, its risk factors, and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle to prevent disease onset. Dr Marion Morkel, Chief Medical Officer at Sanlam, says today’s stressful environment can be detrimental to heart health and should be concerning for all South Africans, regardless of age.
The impact of stress on cardiovascular disease
Dr Morkel says stress significantly impacts the intricate balance of our autonomic nervous system, which ensures the heart’s rhythmic beat without conscious effort.
She explains, “Chronic stress alters the hormonal system, leading to frequent cortisol releases. Over time, this weakens the body’s ability to manage its cardiovascular system, contributing to the formation of atherosclerosis (the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on the artery walls called plaque). This plaque formation strains the heart muscle and vessels, which can result in a heart attack or a stroke.”
Heart disease: Not just a concern for the elderly
Sanlam’s 2022 claims data reveals that cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of the group’s death and funeral claims. Dr Morkel says the disease can affect anyone, with the likelihood of heart disease increasing as we age, “Sanlam’s records reveal payouts for conditions like myocardial infarction (MI) and preventative procedures such as angioplasties in individuals as young as their 30s.”
She adds that ongoing research indicates that obesity, previously associated primarily with wealthier nations, is a global concern affecting even low-income countries due to the accessibility of unhealthy, processed foods. This is another considerable contributing risk factor for non-communicable diseases like heart attacks and strokes.
Sanlam’s 2022 claims data underscores the ongoing severity of non-communicable diseases, with cardiovascular disease being the primary cause of not only death (21%) but also disability (23%) claims. The group’s data also shows that more than 25% of death claims and 55% of disability claims were from people younger than 55. Furthermore, there was a 6% increase in permanent disability claims for those between 26 and 35, emphasising the need for coverage among younger South Africans.
With many working years ahead of them, the most considerable financial risk facing younger South Africans is the possibility of losing their ability to earn an income.
Precautions for young South Africans with a genetic predisposition
Dr Morkel insists there’s hope for young adults with a family history of cardiovascular disease. These individuals must prioritise regularly checking their vital numbers: blood pressure, cholesterol level, resting heart rate, and glucose level.
“While genetics play a vital role, lifestyle changes can delay or even prevent the onset of these diseases. Prioritising a balanced diet, regular exercise, and stress management can greatly alter one’s trajectory.”
Prioritise a healthier, less stressful lifestyle
Considering that most South Africans live stressful lifestyles, Sanlam Product Actuary Petrie Marx encourages people to use Heart Awareness Month as the catalyst to take proactive steps. This includes making healthier lifestyle choices and reading up on heart health and preventative measures.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s website has a wealth of information to help people prioritise their heart health. For example, people can prevent up to 80% of heart diseases and strokes before 70 by simply living a healthy lifestyle and treating conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
Secure a healthier future with proper cover
Many South Africans are struggling financially, and comprehensive coverage may not be feasible. To combat this, Marx suggests South Africans, especially those with a family history of cardiovascular disease, get cover while they’re young, healthy, and not yet affected in the same way their family members have been.
He adds, “People don’t have to sacrifice comprehensive severe illness coverage completely. They can layer it with a portion of cardiovascular-only cover that incorporates a range of cardiovascular causes. That way, they still have some comprehensive coverage with additional coverage for cardiovascular disease. The cover should not be limited to severe illness but rather a balanced portfolio including death and disability cover, as cardiovascular is also a main cause of claims for those benefits. I always suggest people consult with a qualified financial planner to personalise a unique solution to their specific needs and budget.”
Heart Awareness Month underscores the pressing need to address increasing cardiovascular disease cases among younger South Africans. Beyond genetics, proactive steps like regular health check-ups, a balanced lifestyle, and managing stress can enable South Africans to prioritise their health early on.