South Asians represent the largest and fastest growing visible minority in Canada, number over 1.6 million in 2011. However, research has shown that South Asian migrants to North America have 1.5 to 4 times higher incidence and prevalence of heart disease compared to other ethnic groups. Furthermore, South Asians suffer from their first heart attack on average almost one decade earlier, and with higher mortality, than other populations. This begs the obvious question – Why?
The answer is multifaceted and complex. Studies have shown that traditional risk factors for cardiovascular issues (i.e. obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol) are found more commonly in the South Asian community. In addition to this, the factors that are protective against heart disease and diabetes (i.e. consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, active lifestyle, and adherence to cholesterol lowering and anti-hypertensive medication therapy) are lacking in the South Asian community in Canada.
However, even accounting for these traditional risk factors and protective factors, South Asians are affected more aggressively and prematurely – even when patients seem to be at a healthy weight. In other words, a South Asian male with the same body mass index (BMI) and lifestyle factors as a Caucasian male may have significantly higher risk for developing heart disease. Ethnicity is therefore accepted widely now as its own risk factor. Simply having heritage from a South Asian country can put you at a higher risk – it’s unfortunately as simple as that.
Today, heart disease and diabetes are both considered “silent killers.” It is not obvious and evident when they start developing, and even if an individual is otherwise healthy, it is hard to know if and when a heart attack will strike. So how does one navigate through this maze of risk and uncertainty? How do you know where you stand, and what you need to do to ensure a heart healthy future?
The answer may be in early and frequent assessments, and a proactive approach to manage the risk factors that affect you personally. In the Greater Toronto Area, a non-profit organization called SANSAR (South Asian Network Supporting Awareness and Research) offers comprehensive assessments and one-on-one counseling for all South Asian adults. These are annual assessments that are completely covered under OHIP, and therefore free of charge to the patient. Every patient receives a personalized “report card” with a calculated risk score accounting for ethnicity and all personal risk factors. Follow-up counseling with a South Asian physician allow you to discuss all the results and create an individualized plan to help you manage and reduce your risk for heart disease and diabetes.
“Prevention is better than cure,” they say. While you may be at heightened risk for developing heart disease and diabetes, with the help of a heart healthy lifestyle, your risk can be reduced dramatically. For more information about heart disease, diabetes, prevention strategies and assessments, visit www.sansar.org.
— Avantika Mathur