The Heart and Stroke Foundation SA (HSF) enlisted the help of seven well-known celebrities, who have all been personally affected by cardiovascular disease (CVD), to educate South Africans about the dangers posed by the leading cause of death worldwide.  

To show that no-one is immune, the HSF ( together with Unilever launched a hard hitting awareness campaign, Think Red. Seven celebrities – Mark Pilgrim, Robert Marawa, Gerry Rantseli-Elsdon, Michael Mol, Uyanda Mbuli, Kerishnie Naiker and Liezel van der Westhuizen – are lending their support to the campaign by talking about how they have personally been affected by CVD.

Gerry, Michael, Uyanda, Kerishnie and Liezel have all witnessed the devastation of CVD in the lives of people they love. For Michael, it was his uncles CVD related death as a young medical student as well as the loss of his grandfather before he could get to know him that inspired him to become a doctor and take heart health seriously. Gerry, Uyanda, Kerishnie and Liezel have all been touched personally by CVD and are passionate about heart health especially in women.

“Women need to pay attention to their lifestyles, look out for one another and think about their hearts,” says Uyanda. Mark and Robert have faced CVD themselves and their personal plea to all South Africans is “It’s closer than you think and can happen to you, so take action before it’s too late”. Luckily for Mark, well-known radio DJ and TV presenter, his heart attack happened during a routine doctor’s visit. “I was standing in front of my GP when it happened. Had I not been, I would have died. No one could believe it. I was fit, I ate correctly – I did everything right. Everything EXCEPT getting my cholesterol levels checked. If I had known my ‘numbers’, I might have caught the problem before it became a reality,” says Mark.

Supersport’s Robert Marawa was caught equally unawares. He developed sharp chest pains after a gym session and only just made it to hospital in time for emergency surgery. “It’s scary to quantify your life to the minute, but I was 23 minutes away from death. My family had no history of heart disease, I just hadn’t looked after myself or checked my cholesterol,” says Robert.

Each year, CVD – a general term for diseases of the heart and blood vessels, including coronary heart disease and stroke – kills 2.5 times as many people as do all cancers combined. According to Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of HSF, “CVD is now the biggest single killer-disease worldwide. Over 17.5 million deaths are caused by CVD every year, and it is projected that this figure will rise to 20 million by 2020 and 24 million by 2030. Yet 80% of these deaths are preventable with diet and lifestyle changes.”

Dubbed ‘Africa’s hidden epidemic’, CVD is likely to cause more deaths in Africa than AIDS, TB or malaria. A 2009 report on Heart Disease in South Africa found that heart attacks and stroke often strike during victims’ working years, removing breadwinners from many families. Where victims survive, their lifespan is shortened by an average of 14.2 years.

While age, gender and genetic make-up are risk factors that cannot be changed, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, smoking and physical inactivity are risk factors that can be controlled through an active lifestyle and a healthy, balanced diet.

A 2002 World Health Organisation report attributes 56% of coronary heart disease to high cholesterol levels alone, yet most people don’t know they have it because there are no warning signs. As our celebrity spokespeople found out, it’s possible to live a healthy lifestyle and still have high cholesterol or high blood pressure. “It is essential to have a regular finger-prick cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure screening and to seek medical advice if any of these is raised i.e. if your total cholesterol reading exceeds the recommended 5.0 mmol/l, blood sugar is more than 4 to 8 mmol/l, or blood pressure is 140/90mmHg or higher” says Dr Vash.

More than 75% of CVD is caused by lifestyle-related factors like smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar or their combination – and a staggering 80-90% of people who die from coronary heart disease have at least one major risk factor that is influenced by lifestyle. “Far from painting a doom-and-gloom scenario, the statistics indicate that much can be done to prevent CVD. Knowing the risk factors, getting your levels checked and living a healthy lifestyle can be the difference between life and death,” concludes Dr Vash.

As well as being physically debilitating, CVD could also be financially devastating. To find out how you can safeguard your family’s financial wellbeing through critical illness cover, please speak to your financial adviser.