/ 20 January 2012

Identifying South Africa’s silent killers

There are several diseases, with little or no discernible symptoms in the early stages and known as silent killers, that are afflicting South Africans.

Some of them are hypertension (raised blood pressure), hyperlipi­daemia (high cholesterol levels), type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer of the lungs, pancreas, colon, breast and rectum.

Most of these chronic diseases are preventable, as their primary cause is that the majority of South Africans eat and drink too much and exercise too little.

Although this is an oversimplification of a complex problem, the increasing Westernisation and urbanisation of our population over the past few decades has resulted in people living a more sedentary lifestyle. It has also led to a marked increase in the consumption of fast food, with its extremely high salt, sugar and fat content. Also, our alcohol consumption is among the highest in the world.

A recent report in the British media claimed that eating just 50g of processed meat a day, and that would be just one sausage or two rashers of bacon, could increase the likelihood of pancreatic cancer by 19%. Eating 100g a day increased the risk by 38%, and 150g increased the risk to 57%. There was also evidence that processed meat triggered bowl cancer.

Moreover, in a survey conducted by pharmaceutical multinational GlaxoSmithKline in 2010 and previously referred to in this column, the results of South Africa’s addiction to unhealthy living makes for some grim statistics: 61% of the population is overweight, obese or morbidly obese; and 70% of South African women over the age of 35 and 59% of black women over the age of 15 are overweight or obese.

But possibly the most shocking statistics concern our youth: 25% of teens and 17% of children younger than nine years of age are also classed as overweight or obese.

On the fitness front, 49% of South Africans claim to do no exercise and 71% have never attempted to cut down on their food intake. Worse than that, 78% of obese and 52% of morbidly obese South Africans believe they are perfectly healthy.

From the delusional to the plain ignorant: just 47% of South Africans believe that exercise and fitness are critical to good health.

The results of this is far worse than bulging tummies, flabby arms or wobbly bums — it is opening a Pandora’s box of fatal diseases.

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that most of these conditions are free of symptoms in the early stages, which leads to a false sense of security — until the symptoms make themselves known, which is often too late for medical treatment to be effective.

For people with hypertension, the risk of strokes and heart failure is real. People who battle to control their cholesterol levels are at risk of cardiovascular and peripheral vascular disease, and those with type 2 diabetes are at risk of heart attacks, blindness, amputation of limbs, kidney disease and problems with the nervous and circulation systems.

Add up these risks and we have a recipe for disaster for both our public and private health sectors.

It is estimated that 1.5-million South Africans have type 2 diabetes, although this figure could be much higher because so many people are unaware that they have the condition.

Moreover, it is generally accepted that 25% of South Africans over the age of 15 years suffer from hypertension.

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, 195 people die every day because of heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.

All of which add to South Africa’s deplorable life expectancy of just 49 years.

What can we do about it? Well, we can all play our part. We can eat less fast food and processed food that is crammed with salt, sugar and fat. We can also drink less alcohol, which is also high in kilojoules, and we can exercise far, far more.

“Silent killers” will be the topic of Bonitas House Call on January 28 at 9.00am on SABC2