Asian American Medical Hazard: South Asian Heart Disease

Silicon Valley resident Mahendra Agrawal exercised regularly, maintained a health weight, and followed a vegetarian diet.  When he went to the hospital with shortness of breath, doctors found that the 63 year old had obstructed coronary arteries.  His reaction:

“I’m a pretty active guy and I eat very healthy, my wife makes sure of that.  It makes me wonder why this happened to me.”

Agrawal’s predicament is detailed in this New York Times article (also here if you ran out of free articles) that talks about another Asian American Medical Hazard – South Asian Heart Disease.  It also describes one potential benefit of being Asian American – how adopting a blend of Asian and American practices can lead to better health than either alone.

How common is heart disease in South Asians?  Dr. Abha Khandelwal, a cardiologist at the Stanford South Asian Translational Heart Initiative, says “Every South Asian has a very common experience unfortunately, and it’s that we all have someone in our first-degree circle that has either died suddenly or had premature cardiovascular disease.”  South Asians make up about a quarter of the worlds population, but 60% of the world’s heart disease patients. Living in Silicon Valley among many South Asians, I too know of South Asians who have premature cardiovascular disease.

A group of researchers at the University of California San Francisco and Northwestern University formed a group, the Mediators of Atherosclerosis in South Asians Living in America (MASALA for short, in what has to be one of the most contrived names ever in order to form a catch acronym), that would perform long term study of heart disease in South Asians who live in the United States.  MASALA has found that South Asian Americans, like other Asian Americans, have heart problems at lower Body Mass Indexes (BMI) than other ethnic groups.  This also confirms with my personal experiences, knowing South Asians who have heart problems but definitely don’t look overweight.

One of the more interesting insights that MASALA makes is that while many South Asians are vegetarians, that doesn’t mean that they eat healthily.  Their diet can include fried snacks, sweetened drinks, and food with lots of cream.  They also found that South Asians who adopted Western diets were also at high risk.  At lower risk than either group were bicultural South Asians, who retained some traditional aspects of South Asian cultural while adopting some of healthier Western habits.

I have previously written about how working in Silicon Valley can be a health hazard, and if you are South Asian and here in the Valley, you are at even greater risk.  Dr. Kandewal adds:

“As a South Asian Bay Area resident, I see that we focus a lot on success and academic achievements in our families. But we don’t necessarily look at our health success, and your health is something that you can’t easily get back.”

MASALA has published this page full of tips on how South Asians can improve their cardiovascular health.

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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