Cardiovascular diseases are top ranking causes of morbidity and mortality in the world nowadays. They are dubbed the silent killers and in recent years, cardiovascular disease prevalence has been on a worrisome steady rise in not just the Gambia, but the world at large. This is indeed alarming as cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death in adults globally. According to the World Health organization, cardiovascular diseases take the lives of approximately 17.9 million people each year. It is a cause for concern and requires all forms of effort to spread awareness about some of our things we do which are risk factors that may culminate into a cardiovascular disease.
What are cardiovascular diseases?
Cardiovascular disease is a broad term for group of diseases affecting the heart and the blood vessels of the body. Their lethality stems from their ability to impair blood supply to critical organs of the body including the brain and the heart itself; this leads to the long list of complications they are often associated with. The most frequent of cardiovascular diseases are heart attack, stroke and heart failure. They are briefly explained below.
Myocardial infarction: heart attack as it is widely known is caused by the impairment of blood supply to the heart itself, resulting into a distinctive pressure of tightness in the chest that may radiate to the arms, neck and jaw.
Stroke: stroke is caused by the impairment of blood supply to the brain. The gravity of the damage that may result depends on the extent of the blood flow impairment to that organ. It would either lead to transient paralysis, permanent paralysis or in the worst-case scenario, death.
Heart failure: This occurs when the heart muscle does not pump blood as it would normally do. It could be as a result of the narrowing of the blood vessels or because of the increased work load on the heart from hypertension. The heart becomes weak, stiff and unable to fill up to pump blood. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, weakness, reduced ability to exercise, swelling in the legs, among others.
What are the risk factors for cardiovascular diseases?
It is important to note that risk factors are factors that increase the likelihood of developing a disease, they do not necessarily culminate into a disease. Most cardiovascular diseases are caused by risk factors that can be controlled and treated. The most common of the risk factors are as follows:
Unhealthy diet: The Gambia is well renowned for its rich and diverse cuisine. But behind the aroma and the catchiness of some of our local meals lies an ever-growing, unsuspecting risk factors which could culminate into cardiovascular disease. Diet related diseases are nothing new to us as we constantly grabble with them throughout our life time. Although there may be some hereditary factors in the etiology of some chronic illnesses, a good number of chronic diseases are attributed to the types of food we eat or don’t eat and sometimes how we eat them. Most often than not, we concentrate more on the taste, texture, our individual preference of food and its ability to just satisfy our hunger, and all health requirements of food, benefits or harm, become more of an after-thought. Key examples are high salt intake, consumption of diets high in saturated fats, obesity, and uncontrolled diabetes.
Excessive salt intake: Table salt contains sodium; both a mineral and an electrolyte that, in its normal amount helps the body retain fluid. But in excess, sodium causes an increase in the blood volume thereby precipitating an increase blood pressure also known as hypertension. In essence, frequent consumption of sodium in diets would increase total blood volume, increased total blood volume would put work strain on the heart and in unfortunate circumstances, heart failure may occur.
Hyperlipidemia: Frequently consumed foods that are high in saturated fats include: palm oil, palm kernel oil, red beef, chicken skin and many more. These foods have the potential to elevate your blood pressure and also cause atherosclerosis: a condition in which a cholesterol-composed plaque builds up inside the arteries. With time, the plaque hardens as more minerals found in the blood get attached, which will eventually narrow the blood vessel and potentially impair blood flow or mat break up and move on to occlude tiny blood vessels, hence causing tissue death in that target organ.
Diabetes: could be regarded as a companion of hypertension. Wherever diabetes goes, hypertension is likely to follow suit. In fact, the two often go hand-in-hand as they can both be caused by similar risk factors. Unchecked diabetes has a damaging effect on our blood vessels, causing them to loss their flexibility, predisposing them to harden and finally causing build of plaque otherwise called atherosclerosis. Unchecked diabetes could also cause kidney damage.
Hypertension: This term refers to an abnormal rise of blood pressure. It is the stepping-stone to cardiovascular disease. If left undetected, hypertension puts excess strain on the heart and blood vessels, resulting damage to the coronary arteries serving the heart to slowly narrow from a buildup of atherosclerosis.
Other causes of cardiovascular diseases
Smoking: Not only does smoking cause damage to the blood vessels, the nicotine in cigarettes cause the heart to beat faster and raises your blood pressure. This increases the risk of stroke.
Physical inactivity: This is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Physically inactive individuals have a risk of fatty material buildup in the arteries. This could lead to a heart attack. This risk heightens as an individual ages, since their physical activity reduces.
Overweight: This is also associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease; particularly heart failure and coronary heart disease. Atherosclerosis and hypertension are other risk factors associated with obesity.
Stress: during moments of stress, there is a physiologic release of cortisol from the adrenal gland. The effects of the release of cortisol include the elevation of the following in the blood: cholesterol level, glucose (diabetes), triglycerides and blood pressure. All of which are risk factors of cardiovascular disease.
How do we prevent this problem?
Although chronic diseases are life-long and cannot be cured completely, they can however be treated and most importantly, often preventable. When it comes to prevention of a disease, we must never be complacent. Not a single precautionary step should be overlooked. Below are some of the simple, yet effective ways of preventing cardiovascular diseases:
Diet control. Limit or avoid foods with high concentration of cholesterol. Consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, chicken etc. Consume less of salt, red beef, refined carbohydrate and sugared beverages.
Stop smoking if you and if you don’t smoke, stay away from smokers while they smoke.
Regular medical checkups can help detect both hypertension and diabetes early.
Get regular exercise to improve your fitness.
Management of stress and staying away from sources of stress as much as you can.
It is important to note that some people are at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease directly due to their genetic predisposition; meaning it is transmitted in the same family. For this reason, taking note of family medical history becomes crucial to predicting the risks of developing cardiovascular disease.