Heart Health Awareness Month

What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a term used for a wide variety of heart conditions. Diseases under the heart disease umbrella include blood vessel diseases, such as coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias); and heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects), among others. The terms Heart Disease and CardioVascularDisease (CVD) are often used interchangeable.

Cardiovascular disease generally refer to conditions that affect the blood flow to the heart and narrowed blood vessels and can cause heart attacks, stroke or angina (chest pain).


Why the big fuss?

According to the “World Heart Federation”:

    • Globally cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the number 1 cause of death around the world.
    • 1 in 3 deaths globally are a result of CVD, yet the majority of premature heart disease and stroke is preventable
    • 80% of CVD deaths occur in low- to middle income countries

The picture in South Africa:

    • 43% of total adult deaths are estimated to be caused by Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) which includes CVDs.
    • CVDs makes up almost a fifth (18%) of these deaths
    • Risk factors related to CVDs in South Africa are as follows:
      • 18% of the population smoke tobacco
      • 11 litres of pure alcohol consumed per person per year
      • 1 in 3 South African adults (33.7%) have hypertension which can increase the risk of heart attack, heart failure and stroke
      • 70% of women and a third of men are classified as overweight or obese
      • 3% adults are obese and a shocking 40% of women are obese
      • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 5 boys between 2 – 14 years are overweight or obese
      • The proportion of CVD deaths in women aged 35-59 years is one and a half times more likely than that of women in the United States


What Causes Heart disease?

Heart disease can be caused by a range of different factors. Most cases of heart disease develop due to damage to the blood vessels and heart over time. Heart disease often does not have a single cause but many factors that work together, over time, to cause damage and in the end result in heart disease. All these factors that contribute to the damage caused are called risk factors.

The more of the risk factors you have and the more serious individual ones are, the bigger the chance for developing heart disease.


1. Uncontrollable risk factors

These risk factors can contribute to heart disease but are not something you can control or change. It is important to also be aware of these factors even though you cannot control them.

  1. Age – The older you get, the higher the risk of CVD
  2. Gender – Males are at greater risk. Women’s risk increases after menopause occurs. Women are less likely to survive a heart attack and the signs of a heart attack are less obvious.
  3. Genetics – Some rare forms of heart conditions, high cholesterol and blood pressure that are inherited increases the risk for heart disease and strokes.
  4. Family history – If there is a heart disease history in your family, you have a higher risk.
  5. Poverty – Poverty increases stress, anxiety and depression. Healthy lifestyle choices are not affordable and medical care are inaccessible, all adding to increase the risk for CVD.


2. Controllable risk factors

These risk factors listed below are within your control, which means you have the power to change them. Small improvements in each of these can make a big difference!

  1. Air pollution – Very fine particles of air pollution, called particulate matter, gets deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system and causes inflammation.   This increases the risk for CVD.
  2. Diabetes – Diabetes seriously increases the risk for CVD. The leading cause of death in diabetes is CVD or stroke. High blood sugar levels cause narrowing of the arteries, increase in blood pressure, increase in triglyceride levels (a type of fat in the blood) which limits blood flow and can cause a heart attack or stroke.
  3. High blood pressure – High blood pressure increases the work load of the heart. This leads to thickening and stiffening of the heart muscle. It also causes the thickening of arteries which affects blood flow.
  4. Cholesterol – High cholesterol levels increase the risk for CVD. It leads to build-up of cholesterol and other substances in the artery walls which blocks blood flow to the heart.
  5. Heart Disease – Heart disease are more common in smokers than non-smokers. Nicotine narrows blood vessels which raises blood pressure & increases the risk for a heart attack or a stroke.
  6. Body Weight – Overweight and obesity – especially if the excess weight is in the waist area, increases the risk for CVD as well as other health problems.
  7. Stress – Stress is a part of our lives but if it is poorly managed and excessive the unrelieved stress can increase the risk for CVD.
  8. Physical Activity – Physical inactivity may increase the risk of heart disease. According to the World Heart Federation physical inactivity causes more than one in four cases of heart disease.
  9. Nutrition – Unhealthy eating habits such as a diet high in fat, trans-fats, sugar, salt and cholesterol increases the risk for heart disease and can also lead to obesity and other diseases such as diabetes. Inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables also increase the risk for CVD.
  10. Alcohol use – Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and may increase triglyceride levels (a type of fat in the blood) which increases the risk for CVD.


How can you protect your heart?

To protect your heart the risk factors that are controllable needs to be controlled and some lifestyle changes may be necessary to do this.

  1. Stop smoking – The risk of CVD falls by 50% within the first year after you quit smoking. If you are a non-smoker try to avoid exposure to second-hand smoking as it also increases the risk of heart attack.
  2. Get active – The heart is a muscle and needs exercise. Try to make exercise a part of your everyday life e.g. climbing stairs, walking to the shop. 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week can help prevent CVD. 150 minutes can be divided in 30 min/day exercise sessions for 5 days a week.
  3. Healthy weight – Keeping a healthy weight will help to lower the risk for CVD. If you are overweight a sustained weight loss of even 3 – 5% of your body weight may lead to a significant reduction in risk factors. Losing weight may also be beneficial for other risk factors such as:
    • Cholesterol levels
    • Blood sugar control
    • Developing Type 2 Diabetes
    • Blood pressure
  1. Healthy eating – Eating a healthy diet is a lifestyle change and one of the best weapons you have to control CVD. Choose nutrient dense foods that have lots of vitamins, minerals, fibre and other nutrients.
    • Good choices are: fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Choose low fat dairy options, fish, poultry and legumes.
    • Try to avoid: red meat, fatty foods, sugar, sweetened drinks and alcohol. Your diet can also affect other risk factors such as blood sugar, cholesterol levels, being overweight and diabetes. Your diet can also affect other risk factors such as blood sugar, cholesterol levels, being overweight and diabetes.
  1. Know your numbers – Check your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood glucose levels regularly. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are often referred to as “silent killers” as there are often no visible signs or symptoms to warn they are high. Most people are often unaware they are high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
  2. Know the warning signs –Not all people experience the same symptoms when having a heart attack. Sudden chest pain is the most common symptom. Symptoms may also differ for men and women. Be familiar with the warning signs that may occur. The sooner you call for help the better the chances for a full recovery.

Warning signs:

    • Shortness of breath
    • Feeling light headed or dizzy
    • An overwhelming sense of anxiety
    • Chest discomfort: squeezing, pain, heaviness, tightness of chest
    • Discomfort and/or pain spreading to other areas of the upper body like arms, shoulders, neck, jaw or stomach


What kind of diet prevents heart disease?

According to the latest scientific evidence, looking at specific nutrients and dietary patterns support the so-called “Mediterranean diet” for the prevention of heart disease. A number of studies support this eating pattern which show a 10% reduction in CVD and 8% reduction in all-cause mortality.

The Mediterranean diet provides:

  • Providing a high intake of fibre in the form of fruits & vegetables, legumes, whole grains
  • Providing a high intake of fish and unsaturated fatty acids usually in the form of olive oil
  • Providing a low intake of red meat, dairy products and other saturated fatty acids
  • Moderate intake of alcohol consumption e.g. wine with meals

Taking the latest research into consideration the European Society of Cardiology recommends the following cardio-protective dietary guidelines for the prevention of heart disease:

Energy intake:

    • To be limited to the amount needed to maintain or achieve a healthy weight. Consult a registered dietitian for assistance.


    • To be eaten at least twice a week, of which one should be oily fish (e.g. sardines, salmon, trout, pilchards and mackerel)


    • Saturated fatty acids should be <10% of total energy intake
    • Saturated fatty acids to be replaced by polyunsaturated fatty acids
    • Trans-unsaturated fatty acids to be limited to the minimum, try to have no intake from processed food and <1% intake of total energy


    • < 5g per day


    • 30 – 45g of fibre per day from wholegrains, fruits and vegetables

Fruit & Vegetables:

    • 2 – 3 servings of fruit per day
    • 2 – 3 servings of vegetables per day

Alcohol intake:

    • Limited to 2 glasses per day (20g/day) for men
    • Limited to 1 glass per day (10g/day) for women
    • 1 Drink is: 120 ml wine, 340ml beer, 60ml sherry, 25ml spirits


What about specific nutrients?

A well-balanced diet is the best way to address low nutrient levels but fortified food products and supplements can help fill nutritional gaps. Two specific nutrients that have been found to be of benefit in heart health are:

1. Viscous soluble fibre

Soluble fibres, such as oat beta-glucan, are well known for supporting heart health.

The analysis of 28 trials found that 3g of oat beta-glucan per day was associated with a significant reduction in LDL and total cholesterol. The US Food and Drug Administration, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and South African Food Labelling Draft R429 of May 2014 have acknowledged these findings and have approved health claims for cholesterol reduction and the associated reduced risk of developing heart disease.

Although oat beta-glucan can be found in nature, it can be challenging to eat the adequate amount via natural sources. Despite the increased awareness intake levels of fibre remains relatively low. According to the Food Based Dietary Guidelines for South Africa, most South Africans consume <20g of fibre/day and are not meeting the recommended intake of 25 – 35g / day.

improve your heart health

GlucaChol-22™ is a 100% concentrated oat bran powder that contains a high concentration of oat beta-glucan.

One serving of GlucaChol-22™ contains 3g of oat beta-glucan and 6g of dietary fibre, making it convenient and easy to achieve the recommended intake.

2. EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)

A recent scientific publication found that EPA and DHA supplementation reduced CHD risk with 18% in individuals with elevated triglycerides or LDL cholesterol.

Many people do not consume enough EPA & DHA for heart health through the diet.

heart health supplements

If you are not eating two servings of oily fish per week another way to close this nutritional gap is to consume supplements containing these essential fatty acids.

Mi-Vitamin™ Omega-3 contains 1000mg Essential Fatty acids with 300mg EPA & DHA per soft gel capsule.

omega 3 supplements for heart health

Recommended levels of EPA and DHA for cardio protection, American Heart Association:

best omega 3 supplement for heart health

Who to contact?

If you would like to find out more about your heart health and risk factors involved contact your health care professional.

For more information visit: