In South Africa, about 33 people die every day as a result of a heart attack. The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa's mission is to get more South Africans to adopt healthy lifestyles by raising awareness, education and research.

Heart Attacks

What causes a heart attack?

Coronary artery disease (disease of the arteries to the heart) is the most common cause of heart attacks. When the diseased arteries become too narrow or a clot forms, blood flow to the heart is restricted. The heart muscle is left without oxygen, causing death of the muscle and leaving the heart unable to pump sufficient blood to the rest of the body.

How Is It diagnosed?

A heart attack is diagnosed through the symptoms experienced (see below) as well as by the results of blood tests and an ECG (electrocardiogram). Cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) is the second biggest killer in South Africa, and is second only to HIV/AIDS. It can affect any one of us.

What to look out for

Many will not admit that they are in trouble or acknowledge that the symptoms they experience are serious. Recognising the warning signs and seeking medical treatment could save your life! It is important to know the 'warning signs' of a heart attack so that you, a friend or a family member know when you are in trouble and what to do.

Warning signs of a heart attack! Seek Immediate help.

  • Heavy pressure, tightness, crushing pain or unusual discomfort in the centre of the chest. This may feel like indigestion, spread to shoulders, arms, neck or jaw and last for more than a few minutes. It may stop or weaken and then come back.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Other signs: breaking into cold sweat, nausea or light¬ headedness

Symptoms in women and diabetics can be harder to spot, as they may not be the 'classic' heart attack symptoms - instead they may experience milder symptoms such as: shortness of breath, weakness, extreme fatigue, dizziness, lower chest discomfort, upper abdominal pressure/discomfort that feels like indigestion or upper back pain.

What to do if you think you or someone close by is having a heart attack

A heart attack is life threatening! You are more likely to survive a heart attack if you receive treatment in time. Phone for an ambulance immediately!

How can I prevent a heart attack?

Heart disease is aggravated by poor lifestyle habits. Nothing is guaranteed, but preventative measures can be implemented to reduce the risk of suffering a heart attack:

  • Do not smoke and avoid second-hand smoke
  • Reduce high blood cholesterol
  • Control high blood pressure
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet low in saturated fat and salt, and high in vegetables, fruit and whole grains
  • Exercise regularly - aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five times a week
  • Reduce stress

It is important for family, friends and close colleagues to know if you have heart disease and what to do if a heart attack occurs. Everyone can benefit from learning more about the warning signs of heart disease and how to do CPR.

Eat Well

Living healthily, including regular exercise and a balanced diet, go a long way to reducing the risk of diseases of the lifestyle such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.

Guidelines for a healthy diet:

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet including a variety of foods
  • Eat smaller, more regular meals
  • Make starchy foods, especially those rich in fibre and whole grains, part of most meals
  • Include at least five servings of vegetables and fruit every day
  • Include fish as part of your diet at least twice a week. Good examples are: snoek, sardines, tuna, pilchards, mackerel, salmon
  • Limit the intake of red meat to two to three times per week. Regularly include legumes {beans, peas, lentils, soya) as alternatives to meat
  • Eat fats sparingly, limiting 'bad' fats, such as butter or fatty meat, and including more 'good' fats in your diet, such as vegetable oils (e.g. sunflower, canola or olive oil. soft tub margarines, avocados, nuts, peanut butter and seeds
  • Limit intake of foods high in cholesterol such as organ meats, calamari, shrimps, prawns
  • Limit intake of refined and sugary foods and beverages
  • Have at least two servings of low fat or fat free milk/dairy products every day
  • Use salt sparingly. Intake should be limited to 1 teaspoon a day (5g) - remember that processed foods, e.g. processed meats like viennas and polony, salty snacks like chips and takeaways also contain a lot of hidden salt
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation
  • Drink lots of water every day.

Suggestions for low salt cooking

Wean yourself off salt slowly, so that you become used to the taste of less salt. There are many alternative flavourings that you can use to make your food taste delicious, for example:

  • Add sliced lemon or lemon juice or balsamic vinegar as salt substitutes to meats, chicken and fish
  • Use garlic, ginger, chilli, dry mustard, pepper, onions, mushrooms or tomatoes to add flavour to meat
  • Use fresh herbs such as basil, marjoram, origanum, sage and thyme
  • Use salt-free spices such as curry, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg.

Heart Mark

The Heart Mark makes it easier for shoppers to choose healthier products on the supermarket shelf and on the menu when eating out.

Products that carry the Heart Mark logo can be trusted to be a healthier choice because they:
Have been thoroughly tested by an independent accredited laboratory
Meet stringent nutritional criteria for fats, sodium, cholesterol, added sugars and fibre (where applicable)
Are spot-checked to make sure they meet criteria
Can be used as part of the HSF's eating plan.

There is a growing list of Heart Mark approved products; check your local Shoprite supermarkets' shelves.

For more information on healthy living kindly contact the Heart and Stroke Health Line on 0860 1 HEART (0860 1 432 78), send an email to or visit  for more information.