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Solving a Cardiovascular Conundrum

Apr/06/2024 / by Elizabeth Marglin

Reduced stem cells may provide a clue to South Asians’ predisposition to heart disease

Heart trouble hits South Asians hard. Many South Asians have already been apprised of the fact that they are four times more prone to cardiovascular disease than their white counterparts. Not only that, but the disease also impacts South Asians five to 10 years earlier, complications are more common, and death rates are higher after a heart attack when compared to the general population in the United States.

While South Asians’ greater susceptibility to heart disease is becoming common knowledge, the reasons for this health disparity have remained unclear. A recent breakthrough study however, sheds light on a probable factor: South Asian people have vastly reduced amounts of certain stem cells that are essential for regenerating blood vessels.

A recent study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that South Asian patients with either heart disease or diabetes had fewer vascular regenerative and reparative cells compared with white patients. The quantity of these kinds of stem cells affects the body’s ability to repair blood vessels in response to diabetes. South Asian people are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, which often leads to heart disease. The new study suggests more explicit reasons why diabetes has such a detrimental impact.

More research is needed to prove that the lower level of stem cells causes inferior blood vessels and an increased risk of heart complications.

An ounce of prevention

In the meantime, South Asians should pay close attention to risk factors, particularly family history. If you have lost relatives to heart attacks or strokes in their 40s or 50s, the focus on preventive heart care should begin in your 30s and 40s—or even sooner. As a young adult, seeing a preventive cardiologist, well-versed in South Asians’ unique predispositions to heart disease, can help prevent such complications. 

Equal attention should be paid to lifestyle factors such as smoking, diabetes, low physical activity, high stress, hypertension or high blood pressure. Female-specific risk factors, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, gestational hypertension and gestational diabetes, are a more recent addition to the list of risk factors.

Useful to consider is South Asians have a genetic predisposition for higher sugar levels, which tends to increase the risk of diabetes. The traditional South Asian diet, while often vegetarian, can still contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries. Many cherished, ubiquitous dishes are rich in saturated fats (ghee, butter), sugar, and carbohydrates (lentils, naan).

A proactive approach to diet and exercise habits can lower your risk and help you take on the mantle of a heart-healthy lifestyle, inspiring others in your family and community along the way.

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