“I’ve been asked why I’m such a doting dad. Why do I always talk about my two daughters and put them before anything else. The answer is simple. They almost never existed.” These are the reflective words of veteran radio jock, TV presenter and motivational speaker, Mark Pilgrim who shocked the country when he suffered a severe heart attack in 2008 at the age of 38.
Pilgrim, like many other South Africans, never imagined this would happen to him as he led a healthy lifestyle. However, cardiovascular disease (CVD) can be brought on by a number of factors (both inherited and lifestyle-related) but high cholesterol alone accounts for a whopping 56% of coronary heart disease. Pilgrim’s case alone proves that heart attacks are not just the curse of the old man or woman.
Taking some time out of his busy schedule, Pilgrim spoke to the news team as he wants to get his message out to Unisa staff and students who think a heart attack could never happen to them. “I was the poster boy for fitness and I still had a heart attack. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you, especially if you lead a stressful lifestyle, don’t exercise regularly or eat poorly,” Pilgrim explains.
Unfortunately Pilgrim has a family history of heart disease. “Even though I was eating well, my cholesterol was raised genetically. I am only alive because I had the heart attack while sitting in my doctor’s office,” he says. His advice to Unisa staff and students (both young and old) is to “Eat well, try and do a bit of exercise and please know your cholesterol level. Anything over 5 means you need to work on it. Generally, anything over 7 is a red flag. I had the heart attack at 5.8.”
It’s scary a fact that heart disease and stroke are the second biggest killers in South Africa – second only to HIV/AIDS. And whilst CVD remains the leading killer worldwide, 80% of these deaths are preventable.
You can start by squashing that last cigarette because if you are a smoker, you are twice as likely to have a heart attack than a non-smoker. Next, cut down on salt as too much of it can cause high blood pressure, which increases the risk of developing CVD. You also need to monitor your diet and alcohol (remember you are what you eat and drink), get active, learn to manage your stress levels, check your family history of heart disease and get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked by your GP.
And whilst you get your heart on track, make sure you can still recognise early signs of CVD and, in extreme cases, symptoms of a heart attack. Tightness or discomfort in the chest, neck, arm or stomach which comes on when you exert yourself, but goes away with rest may be the first sign of angina, which can lead to a heart attack if left untreated.
Tuledi Makua, Lecturer in Unisa’s Department of Health Studies, warns that an ever tired body is a sign of a tired heart so urgent action is needed. “The heart does not take care of itself, for any human being to be productive in any activity you need a healthy heart that will effectively supply your brain with blood for proper thinking and agile decision making,” says Makua.
Remember that a healthy heart starts today. Much is being done in South Africa to the fight against preventable heart disease with the aim of seeing fewer South Africans suffer premature deaths and disabilities. The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) is a leading role player in this fight with a number of ongoing and short term projects creating a mind shift and change of hearts in this country.
In addition the HSFSA, together with Unilever, launched a hard-hitting new awareness campaign, ‘Think Red’ with seven celebrities: Pilgrim, Robert Mawara, Gerry Rantseli-Elsdon, Michael Mol, Uyanda Mbuli, Kerishnie Naicker and Liezel van der Westhuizen all lend their support to the campaign by talking about how they have personally been affected by CVD. This campaign illustrates that no-one is immune. ‘Take action against heart disease, it’s closer than you think’ is the message of these seven celebrities.
*Article by Kirosha Naicker
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