Health & Fitness

Are you causing your heart to fail?

Heart failure
Heart failure can be prevented if you understand what causes it and take the necessary precautions to avoid it. PHOTO | FILE 

Everyone assumes that heart failure is a health problem for the elderly. However, heart failure can occur at any age including in newborn babies, teenagers and young adults. It, however, can be prevented if you understand what causes it and take the necessary precautions to avoid it.

Poorly controlled hypertension and diabetes

High blood pressure is known as the ‘silent killer’ because it damages various organs without initially causing symptoms. Both diabetes and hypertension damage the blood vessels and muscles of the heart (which can lead to a heart attack), and have been associated with an abnormally enlarged heart.

High levels of bad cholesterol

Contrary to popular belief, not all cholesterol is bad. The body needs some cholesterol to allow for formation of vital structures. However, if you have an abnormally high level of bad cholesterol (usually obtained from excessive consumption of animal products), you end up with hardening of the blood vessels of the heart, which puts you at risk of getting a heart attack and heart failure.

Not treating sore throats in children

Most children in developing countries develop heart problems from untreated sore throats. Although most sore throats in children are caused by viruses, there is a small percentage of them that are caused by bacteria (usually, these give a characteristic appearance which most doctors are able to recognise on sight). This bacteria (known as ‘strep’) has also been known to cause kidney problems.

If your child has a sore throat that is not associated with symptoms of the common cold or flu, take him/her to the doctor for review to determine if a course of antibiotics is necessary. (Remember, sore throats associated with the common cold or flu are often due to viruses and usually do not need antibiotics to treat them).


Smoking damages the blood vessels and muscles of the heart. In addition, it destroys the lungs, which can indirectly damage the heart. It is the most detrimental lifestyle habit currently known.

Poorly controlled lung disease

The lungs are vital organs that supply oxygen to the heart. If they are damaged due to smoking or long standing conditions such as chronic bronchitis or poorly controlled asthma, it could lead to heart failure.

Ignoring palpitations

Every once in a while, one becomes aware of their heart beat (medically known as ‘palpitations’). Often, this occurs if you have experienced some sort of emotional or physical strain. However, if you keep experiencing palpitations whilst at rest, it could be a sign of problems with the way your heart is beating. This should never be ignored, as it can be detrimental in the long run.

Not getting a baby’s heart assessed

Some babies are born with structural abnormalities in their heart. If these are not addressed in early childhood, they could lead to heart failure and even death. For this reason, it is important that a paediatrician assess your baby before they leave the hospital after delivery. Most doctors can recognise abnormalities in the heart by just listening to the heartbeat using a stethoscope. This simple assessment could save your child’s life.


Obesity is one of the greatest risk factors for hardening of the vessels of the heart (medically known as ‘coronary heart disease’) a condition, which ultimately leads to heart attacks and heart pain (angina). Obese people also put greater strain on their hearts and can end up with weakened enlarged hearts that do not work as efficiently as a normal heart.

Ignoring sleep apnoea and snoring

Snoring is a sign of blockage of the upper segment of your breathing system (nose, airway behind the nose and throat). In most cases, it is a harmless nuisance but if you find yourself (or your child) having episodes where you stop breathing whilst asleep (usually lasts less than one minute), you are likely to be suffering from a serious health condition known as ‘obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)’. The most common causes of OSA are obesity, enlarged adenoids (mainly in children), polyps in the nose and other abnormalities in the nose or throat. All these health issues can be easily managed with a visit to your doctor (usually an ear, nose and throat specialist) and lifestyle changes.


The occasional alcoholic drink is not known to be harmful to the heart. However, alcohol abuse ultimately damages the heart. Alcohol abuse damages the heart muscle and is associated with vitamin B1 deficiency, which is known to cause heart failure.


This is a condition in which the oxygen-carrying element in blood (haemoglobin) is low. This can be as a result of poor nutritional intake (low iron and vitamin B12/folate intake), stomach or intestinal surgery, long-term illness and bleeding (common in women with heavy menses). Usually, anaemia is not diagnosed early because it presents with symptoms that can be easily ignored such as fatigue, dizzy spells and palpitations. Long standing anaemia has been found to be harmful to the heart.

Avoiding regular check ups

Most Kenyan adults are ‘allergic’ to regular health check-ups. The rationale is that you should not go ‘looking for problems’. Unfortunately, this is the wrong attitude. When health problems are detected early, you are in a good position to prevent complications.
Regular check-ups also help reduce the development of preventable health problems. Every adult should strive for an annual check-up (even if you do not have a health condition). Remember, prevention is always better than cure.

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