Jane Elliott, BBC News, Oct. 7
He didn’t smoke, ate well and played sport, but Paratosh Sarkar was still one and a half times more at risk from heart disease.
Why? Simply because he is South Asian.
“This came as a bit of a shock to me, as I had always been particularly active. I always played tennis in the summer and in the winter I played badminton.
“I was always very fit,” he said.
“The South Asian food is high in saturated fat; ghee is used a lot for cooking, but my family have always avoided that because they know it is not good for you.”
Despite taking all the precautions Mr Sarkar, a nuclear engineer from Eltham, London, was found to have a blockage in the heart and needed an angioplasty (in which a catheter-guided balloon is used to open a narrowed coronary artery) and a stent (a tube to keep heart arteries open).
Heart disease is the UK’s biggest killer, taking the lives of one-in-five men and one-in six women in the UK.
Among the South Asian community, those from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, this is an even greater problem with a much greater death rate from coronary heart disease (CHD) than the national average.
But despite this, 97% of South Asians do not realise they are at an increased risk because of their ethnicity.
A recent study showed that despite this nearly one-in-five South Asians do nothing to improve their heart health.
Mr Sarkar agreed many in his community did little to protect themselves.
“South Asians do not exercise enough. When I played tennis I hardly ever came across anybody from South Asia, although some do play a lot of cricket.”
Mr Sarkar said he feels stress must be a significant factor.
He said that many, like him, had come to the UK with very little cash and had to prove themselves in a predominantly white and often prejudiced environment and that the years of this had taken their toll on health.
“A lot of us came with just £5 in our pockets and you would find whole families living above a shop.
“You had to work hard just to establish yourselves and so one of the risk factors must be from the stress of this.
“Then you would find that your salary was less than your white counterpart so you used to have to work almost double the amount of time just to level up.
“The stress factor must be important. I keep thinking that it must have played a part in the problems with the heart and the arteries.”
Michaela Nuttall, a cardiac specialist nurse from the British Association for nursing in cardiac care, said that although South Asians were born with a higher risk, they were also not heeding current heart health messages and making themselves even more vulnerable.
“There are certain established risk factors for heart disease that are more common within the South Asian community, such as high levels of smoking, low rates of exercise and low HDL (the good cholesterol).
“This, and a combination of other factors, puts South Asian individuals at an elevated risk of heart attack.
“However, heart disease is preventable and can be reduced through a variety of lifestyle changes.”
She added that the risk was higher for South Asians living in the UK, than for those living in their country of origin.
Health campaigns are now targeting the South Asian community, using mosques and other places where the community meets to try and get the message across that they need to take particular care.
There are also special ‘stop-smoking’ helplines targeting them specifically.
Michaela Nuttall said it is important that the message gets across.
“Just being born South Asian puts you at a one and half times risk. You can’t do anything about your ethnicity, but you can think about the risk factors that can add to the problem.
“It is about taking small steps to avoid those risks and increasing your levels of activity,” she said.
(Posted on October 10, 2005)