Moses Busuulwa, a Masters student at Makerere University suffered mild heart failure in 2015. He says he is still alive today because he sought medical attention sooner rather than later.
“Over time, I noticed that I often had chest pain, especially after performing a task. Sometimes my energy levels where too low and I would be sickly all the time. At first, I thought I had malaria or typhoid, but when I went to the hospital for a checkup, these were negative,” he shares.
Unrelenting, he decided to run a full body checkup. “Learning that my heart was unable to pump blood as it ought to was scary, of course. I thought I was going to die, but my doctor explained to me that this was a condition that could be controlled. On top of the medicine I was given, I was guided on how to live a healthy lifestyle and eating a balanced diet,” Busuulwa says.
Like Busuulwa, a number of people continue to live with such heart conditions, mild or severe. Michael Okecho, a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at the Uganda Heart Institute, explains that heart diseases are broken into two major categories; congenital heart diseases, which children are born with and acquired heart diseases, which come later on and are usually referred to as diseases of lifestyle.
“Diseases of lifestyle are caused by a number of things including lack of exercise, poor diet, smoking and other diseases which predispose one to heart disease,” Okecho says.
Mansur Toko, a senior nutritionist at Jinja Regional Referral Hospital, says: “Diet along with other healthy habits, can slow or even partially reverse the narrowing of the heart arteries and help prevent further complications. It is, therefore, important to watch what you eat.”
A diet that curbs cholesterol but also low in sugar (fatty foods) lowers blood pressure and blood sugar and helps with weight loss, he notes adding that one should also eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
“A person with a heart condition should eat all three meals, breakfast and lunch being very necessary. Supper should be early and light,” he says. Okecho also emphasises that excessive carbohydrates are not good adding that although these provide energy for the body, in excess, they are stored in the body as fat, which leads to fat deposition in the blood vessels, including those that supply the heart.
Diet goes hand in hand with exercise because at the end of the day, the consumption of energy depends on the activity of the body, Okecho says. “ For an active person such as a sports personality, eating abit more is expected but they easily burn off the extra food. However, a person who is not active such as those who sit at the desk the whole day and then drive home, should not eat the same amount of food because it will be stored as fat, and that is not good for the heart,” he says.
So, exercise does not only help keep us fit but it burns the excess food that we take. Exercise keeps the heart pumping and helps with blood flow in the different parts of the body.
Okecho says smoking puts you at an increased risk of worsening heart disease if you have already had heart bypass surgery or a heart attack. Smoking not only impacts your cardiovascular health, but also the health of those around you who don’t smoke. Exposure to secondhand smoke carries the same risk to a nonsmoker as someone who does smoke. Risks include stroke, heart attack, and heart disease.
People with other diseases that predisposes them to heart disease should keep them in check. Diseases such as hypertension (the increase in the blood pressure measured in the body)
“If your blood pressure is not normal, it is considered an illness. This affects the heart because it makes it work extra hard predisposing one to coronary heart disease which causes a heart attack. Generally, know your numbers; your weight, height, body mass index, blood sugarlvels and blood pressure,” Okecho explains. Other diseases include diabetes, kidney failure as well as mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression.
Rheumatic heart disease
“This normally begins from childhood, we grow up with it and mostly manifests later in life. It comes as a result of an inception of bacterium and causes a sore throat. But the thing about this bacterium is that the antigens it gives mimic the tissues in the heart so when the body produces antibodies to fight the bacteria, it ends up destroying the heart,” Okecho says.
At a personal level, it is an infection that progresses because one hasn’t recognized the sore throat and he advises that any child with a soar throat should see a doctor and medicine given to kill bacteria can die.
“Though there may be additional measures taken in specific heart problems/ diseases, these cut across for both people with or without heart problems,” says Okecho.
When to call a doctor
It is vital that you stay in tune with your body and report any symptoms to your doctor immediately, even if they only seem slight. These include:
• Sudden and extreme fatigue.
• Chest pain, and pain that travels to one or both arms.
• Rapid heartbeat.
• Sweatiness (without exercising).
• Dizziness and/or faintness.
• Leg swelling.
• Shortness of breath.
What to eat
• Chose oils wisely- When using added fats for cooking or baking, choose oils that are high in monounsaturated fat (for example, olive and peanut oil) or polyunsaturated fat (such as soybean, corn, and sunflower oils).
• Carbohydrates: Include foods such as brown rice, oatmeal and sweet potatoes to add fibre and help control blood sugar levels. Avoid sugary foods.
• Eat regularly: This helps someone with heart disease control blood sugar, burn fat more efficiently, and regulate cholesterol levels.
• Avoid too much salt: Too much salt is bad for blood pressure. Instead, use herbs, spices, or condiments to flavor foods.
• Encourage hydration. Staying hydrated makes you feel energetic and eat less. Encourage your loved one to drink about one to two liters of water daily, unless their doctor has told them to limit fluids.
• Keep serving sizes in check. It can help to use smaller plates and glasses, and to check food labels to see how much is in each serving, since it is easy to eat more than you think.