An alarming number of South Africans are unaware that they have high blood pressure (BP), or hypertension, because this potentially serious chronic medical condition often shows no symptoms.

Most South Africans only discover they are suffering from high blood pressure by chance.

It is estimated that 40% of South Africans suffer from hypertension but that only approximately half of them are aware of their condition,” said Dr Gugulethu Magubane, a physician who practises at Netcare Krugersdorp Hospital. “When high blood pressure goes untreated it may damage arteries and organs throughout the body,” she warns.

“This can lead to a greatly increased risk of coronary heart disease, renal failure, heart attack, and stroke, which is why hypertension is often known as ‘the silent killer’. “A very real problem is that most people have no idea what their blood pressure should be. Some 80% of patients admitted for a blood pressure related event do not know what their BP numbers are,” she said.

Celebrated on 17 May, the theme of World Hypertension Day (WHD) is ‘Know Your Numbers’ and aims to improve public awareness of hypertension. According to May Measurement Month (MMM), a worldwide awareness campaign led by the International Society of Hypertension (ISH), the number one contributing risk factor for death globally is high blood pressure. The MMM estimates 10 million lives are lost each year as a result of hypertension.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SCREENING

“Unfortunately, most South Africans only discover they are suffering from high blood pressure purely by chance: a person will, for instance, get tested by a nurse as part of a prevention drive or programme. Only then are they made aware that they have a blood pressure problem,” said Dr Magubane.

“Increasing access to blood pressure screening is potentially the most effective way to reduce the condition’s adverse toll on the health of South Africans. It is imperative for people to ensure they have their blood pressure checked at least once a year, and more regularly if they are at risk. Furthermore, if you do have high blood pressure, you should adhere to your treatment as prescribed by your healthcare practitioner,” Dr Magubane stresses.

LIFESTYLE FACTORS

The Pan-African Society of Cardiology (PASCAR) has identified hypertension as the highest area of priority for action to reduce heart disease and stroke on the continent. According to the PASCAR there are four key factors that influence people on the African continent’s knowledge about hypertension: poor patient awareness and its consequences, poor adherence to drug therapy because of limited access to medication, difficulty in changing lifestyles, and a mistaken belief that hypertension is curable.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states: “Metabolic risk factors that can lead to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of premature deaths worldwide, can be attributed to unhealthy diets and a lack of physical activity that causes raised blood pressure, increased blood glucose, elevated blood lipids, and obesity.”

Dr Magubane agrees: “High blood pressure is increasingly affecting younger patients, with many people in their forties now suffering from the condition. Although hypertension can be inherited, many more South Africans are developing the condition, in large part due to poor lifestyle and diet.”

She said a diet high in sodium is an important contributing factor to hypertension, with most people not realising just how much salt they consume daily. “We are increasingly eating processed foods and we do not check the labels and salt content thoroughly. The most dangerous aisles in the supermarket from this perspective are first and foremost the convenience soups and sauces, and then the chips and sweets aisles.

“Improving the quality of food you consume, forgoing the salt, relying on fresh foods and using herbs to flavour your food instead of salt, may go some way in decreasing your risk of developing hypertension. It is also recommended that South Africans adopt an active lifestyle, know their BP numbers and adhere to any treatment regimens prescribed by their doctors” said Dr Magubane.