The MASALA study: Heart Disease and South Asians

Dec/10/2021 / by Pratika Yashaswi

If you’re a South Asian, you probably know we’re more prone to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. We see it amongst our family members and friends. It seems as though after the age of 40, getting one or the other of these diseases is par for the course.

Research tells us South Asians in the United States are more likely to die from heart disease than any other group. Compared to the overall U.S. population, South Asian Americans are four times more likely to develop heart disease and are likely to have heart attacks before the age of 50. They also have the highest prevalence of Type 2 diabetes.

Despite this, medical professionals lack the information to adequately advise South Asian patients on preventive measures. The tendency when someone complains of high cholesterol levels is to advise them to give up red meat. What happens when that someone is a Jain who’s never so much as touched an egg in his life?

Despite Pramila Jayapal’s 2020 South Asian Heart Health Awareness and Research bill, we’re sorely lacking in studies that cater specifically to the ultra-diverse group of South Asians who are living in America. Thus, few culturally targeted treatments exist.


What’s lacking?

South Asians in general are under-represented in clinical trials. A UK-based analysis done in 2016 reported that while South Asians made up 4.5% of the total population, they represented on average only 0.6% of participants in six multi-centre randomised controlled trials.

Further, South Asians are a heterogenous group coming from different countries and religions. There are vast differences in body builds, lifestyles and eating habits even among those from different regions within the same country because there are variations in cultural norms, income levels and educational attainment. For example, some Hindus are vegetarian, while Muslims stay away from pork. This makes it hard to generalize South Asians alone. These disparities affect variations in their health and the kind of diseases they are prone to.

Medical studies often simply lump South Asians in with other Asian Americans without considering these nuances, severely limiting the ability of healthcare professionals to provide appropriate advice or creating scalable, specific treatments.


The Masala Study is here to change this

Conducted by researchers from University of California, Northwestern University and New York University, the Mediators of Atherosclerosis in South Asians Living in America (MASALA) study attempts to bridge this gap. The [MASALA study] is a long-term project trying to identify the factors that lead to heart disease in South Asians, where known risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes or smoking do not adequately explain its incidence in individuals. It will identify and explore newer emerging risk factors for heart disease.

Beginning with a little over 1000 participants, newer participants are consistently being recruited to account better for regional differences.

You can keep up to date with its findings [here] and access important resources on exercise and nutrition which are culturally tailored to South Asians in America.



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