Changing Misconceptions about Heart Health in Asian Indians

Written by WomenHeart Board Member Gayathri Badrinath 

Originally published in hi INDiA

It’s inspiring to see the ascension of Indians into the top ranks of some of the world’s most iconic institutions. When I say “Indians,” I’m referring to people who hail from the Indian subcontinent in Asia, including American-born Indians like myself. I’ve spent my career working in the healthcare industry commercializing first-of-their-kind innovations targeted at improving the life of people suffering from heart disease. In this capacity, I’ve learned how difficult it can be to change existing behaviors and how valuable a shared vision of the opportunity can be in realizing success. Recently, I accepted a seat on the board of WomenHeart, an organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of heart disease for women.

In honor of Minority Health Month, I’d like to take the opportunity to drive a call to action to influential Indian leaders, who are at the helm of companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Novartis. The exploding public health challenge of heart disease in Indians should be a visible corporate and social priority. We need Indian leaders at the helm of organizations and their workforces full of brilliant scientific and technology talent of Indian heritage to be operating at the top of their health. Our economic growth and global future depends on it.

Indians are the second-fastest growing minority in the United States and represent one-fifth of the world’s population. Although more studies are needed to understand the unique facets of heart disease in Indians, the data we have signals trouble. Studies show that Indians have a three to four times higher risk of heart disease and are more likely to die from a heart attack before the age of 50 than other populations. Furthermore, as we navigate the complex issues surrounding gender disparity, we need to examine critically our approach to women’s heart health. One study showed that Indian women in California were dying at a 44 percent higher rate of heart attacks than our white counterparts.

Solving this problem includes driving initiatives towards not only things that we can change such as diet and lifestyle choices but also to increasing our understanding of genetic causes and translating this knowledge into therapeutic targets for drug and device development.  We must also take care to understand the evolving landscape of social norms and trends associated with urbanization in India and immigration into the United States. These trends have been associated with a troubling increase in obesity and diabetes. That being said, no intervention will be successful without deep understanding of the culture.

A common misconception among Indians is that all vegetarian diets are low-fat and nutritionally rich. This myth must be busted and much more education needs to happen on how to optimize the Indian diet, vegetarian or not. The addition of certain oils during preparation, salt and sugar can dramatically reduce the nutritional content. Published data from a study involving more than 8,000 South Indians showed excessive dietary sodium intake was an independent predictor of high blood pressure. The jury is still out on the benefits and drawbacks of ghee, a form of clarified butter common in the Indian diet. While some see ghee as a key factor in driving heart disease risk, others claim ghee intake could be therapeutic. Shifting from a diet heavy in simple carbohydrates such as white rice to more complex and nutritionally rich grains is a reasonable starting point.

Strategies such as eliminating white rice, a staple in the Indian diet are likely to fail. I recall my parents telling me when doctors had counseled them to take such actions. Although perhaps a scientifically-valid recommendation, this type of feedback lacks appreciation of cultural and social norms.  Culturally-sensitive intervention is critical.  One study showed significant improvements in knowledge and perceptions about heart disease prevention in South Asians exposed to culture-specific multimedia education. In my community, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, El Camino Hospital (a member of the WomenHeart National Hospital Alliance) has a South Asian Heart Center, where doctors, staff and volunteers are doing an important job driving initiatives tailored to our South Asian community.  Silicon Valley is home to more than 115,000 Indians. More federal and local funding should flow to such programs; they play a vital role in driving community health.

Many opportunities exist to drive meaningful change and improve the heart health of Indians.  We must develop a joint vision of our tremendous potential with better health and take an integrative approach to meeting this North Star. Healthcare is not solely the responsibility of doctors or hospitals, it’s all of our responsibility, employers, insurers, caregivers, friends and family.  When health is at stake, we all suffer.  I hope that Indian leaders will take to heart the challenge ahead of us and assign the priority and resources to tackle this complex challenge.

To learn more about women and heart disease and to take charge of your heart health, visit womenheart.org.

Gayathri Badrinath is a global commercial leader who serves on the Board of Directors at WomenHeart.  

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