South Asian heritage linked to greater heart disease risks, study reveals

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New research confirms that those with South Asian heritage are more likely than other ethnic groups to die prematurely from cardiovascular disease.

Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death and disability in Australia and worldwide, but the risks are more severe for people from South Asia. 

Doug Comerford, 50, admits he's lucky to be alive after suffering a heart attack two years ago.

He said it took him by surprise.

"I didn't have the classic factors - I was young, I wasn't overweight, I didn't have diabetes," he told SBS World News.

"I didn't smoke, didn't drink, my cholesterol wasn't that high."

And it certainly didn't cross the self confessed gym-junkie's mind that his heart attack was connected to his Indian heritage.

But research conducted by Melbourne medical student Dr Daniel Adams proved otherwise.  

His study looked at cardiovascular disease among people from South Asia compared to South-East Asians, and Caucasians.

Just like in Mr Comerford's case, the research followed on from observations that South Asian patients often present with premature heart attacks.

"When we do their angiograms, we often find that they've got a lot more disease out of proportion to what some of their risk factors may actually indicate," Associate Professor Brian Ko from the Monash Faculty of Medicine said.

Doctors analysed the CT scans of the heart and looked at the early predictors of heart disease: how many arteries were involved; how much plaque ran through the arteries and how much fat there was around the heart.

"We know that those patients who have got significant plaque burden or disease involvement in each of their arteries, or extra fat around their heart, that these patients have got a higher chance of having a heart attack," Associate Professor Ko said.

"And (they have) a higher chance of potentially dying from a cardiovascular cause."

The study found that people from South Asia had a higher volume of plaque in the most important artery of the heart when compared to South East Asians and Caucasians.

It also found similar amounts of fat around the heart when compared to those from South East Asia, but more than Caucasians.

Associate Professor Brian Ko with his patient Doug Comerford
Associate Professor Brian Ko with his patient Doug Comerford (SBS)
Aileen Phillips

It's hoped further research would reveal the reasons South Asians were affected - whether it's lifestyle, or genetics.

While it's not the first time ethnicity had been linked to risks of cardiovascular disease, it's reinforced the need for early targeted prevention measures.

"Our hospital is a very multi-ethnic community," said Professor James Cameron, Director of Monash Cardiovascular Research Centre.

"We have a lot of South Asians and South East Asians who present to our cardiology department every week and it's important that we optimise their treatment and help them and we can learn what their requirements are." 

Mr Comerford agreed.

"Hopefully it can be used for prevention," he said.

"Perhaps people from that area can be tested earlier, maybe there's a new protocol that occurs so they and can see whether you have a predisposition, or you might develop heart issues sooner rather than later because of where you're from."

The study has led to collaborations and further research in the US.

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