The thought of being prone to a stroke or heart attack has helped a thirty-something year old female, living with hereditary high cholesterol, take charge of her life by eating correctly and staying healthy.

Ruchay Sohawan was only 24 when she was diagnosed with high cholesterol which puts her at more risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The results, however, were hardly a surprise for the business intelligence consultant whose father had his first heart attack when she was 9-years-old.

“I found out I had high cholesterol after underdoing tests for life insurance.ย  My younger sister had already been diagnosed so I was hardly shocked. I visit my cardiologist for a yearly check-up and have my cholesterol regularly checked in light of my fears,” said Sohawan.

Fearful, yet empowered

She described the fear she is living with based on her dad’s history and her high levels.

“I am going for 38 now and my father was 38 when he had his first heart attack. So, I’m getting a bit nervous because I know my numbers have been high for a long time,” she explained.

“It has made me fearful; fearful of the future and fearful of what could happen to me. But besides being fearful of what happened to my father, it has also empowered me to manage my condition better and be more aware of my condition.”

Major cause of disease

With World Stroke Day having been observed last Friday, 29 October, the statistics provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), made for scary reading.

The WHO states that raised cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart disease and strokes. Globally, a third of ischemic heart disease is attributable to high cholesterol which is estimated to cause 2.6 million deaths a year.

“Raised total cholesterol is major cause of disease in both the developed and developing world. In 2008, the global prevalence of raised total cholesterol among adults was 39% (37% for males and 40% for females),” stated WHO.

Make the right choices

Hayley Cimring, Nutrition Science Team Leader at the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, said up to 80% of heart disease and strokes can be prevented by life choices and habits. They include following a heathy diet, exercising regularly and not smoking.

“There are various physical and lifestyle factors that can increase the likelihood of developing high blood cholesterol. Being aware of risk factors will help identify the changes necessary to lower risk. Some of these risk factors include: eating too much saturated fat, medical conditions such as an underactive thyroid gland or chronic kidney failure, family history, physcial inactivity and being overweight or obese,” said Cimring.

Sohawan has had to change her entire diet in recent years to manage her condition and becoming a vegetarian seemed an obvious choice for her.

“Growing up and now, I’ve always followed a good diet. My dad had a heart attack when I was 9 and since then, my mom always cooked heathily. I barely eat out or consume fast food. My high cholesterol is hereditary,” said Johannesburg-based Sohawan.

“Living with high cholesterol has taught me to watch what I eat, what it’s made up of and where it comes from. Processed foods are easy to turn to on a busy day but can be very high with bad cholesterol. Practicing mindfulness has brought more awareness to what I eat and allows me to take better care of my body.”

Dietary cholesterol ‘okay’

Cimring underlined the importance of making changes to eating habits and other lifestyle factors.

“Some foods we eat from animal sources contain cholesterol, and this is referred to as dietary cholesterol. Certain foods, notably eggs, organ meats, shellfish and red meat in general contain cholesterol. However, dietary cholesterol doesn’t typically make a great contribution to blood cholesterol,” Cimring noted.

She said a doctor may recommend making lifestyle changes or medication based on an individual’s risk profile. Diet, physical activity and lifestyle changes are critical whether on medication or not.

‘Know Your Risk, Treat Your numbers’

A group of South African cardiovascular disease experts, groups and foundations recently launched a new campaign to raise awareness.

The “Know Your Risk, Treat Your Numbers” campaign encourages people to prevent the condition and manage it by:

  • Knowing your risk (referring to a common list of risk factors)
  • Treating your numbers (getting tested for high cholesterol)

Labelled a “silent killer”, Cimring said that most people normally feel perfectly healthy before being diagnosed.

“The only way to find out is to have a blood test. For an accurate result, refrain from food and liquids for at least 8 hours before the test. If a total cholesterol is high, it’s important to know what type of cholesterol is high,” she added.

“Too much cholesterol can slowly cause a build-up of cholesterol and other waste products in the inner linings of the arteries. If left unchecked, it can form thick hard deposits that can narrow the arteries causing atherosclerosis. If a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery that feeds the heart or brain, it can result in a heart attack or stroke.”

Cimring says that more than 225 South Africans are killed by heart disease almost every day.

“In the US, 40% of the population have high cholesterol but there are no available statistics in the South African context. What we do know is that over 200 South Africans succumb to heart disease almost on a daily basis,” she added.


Sohawan said that every time she tells people that she is living with the condition, people always assume she eats too much junk food.

“I have a family history of cholesterol and no matter how healthy I eat, my cholesterol will not come down. And the other misconception is that only overweight people have cholesterol, but I am quite skinny,” said Sohawan. – Health-e Newsย