Monday, November 30, 2015

Masala for your heart

Back in graduate school, a friend who was Jewish joked that his family always scanned the news for Jewish names.  He laughed while acknowledging that he, too, did that.  I joined in the laughter because I found myself watching out for Indian-American names.  Yes, even when I was fresh off the boat.

More than two decades later, it seems like Indian-American names are popping up all over the place.  It used to be only in the academic circles, or in the research wings of those large multinational corporations.  Now, Indian-Americans are seemingly everywhere.  Even governors and stand-up comedians.  Thankfully, no gun-crazy Indian-American on a shooting spree!

The NY Times had a Sunday review essay on heart diseases, which was authored by Sandeep Jauhar, who has authored a few pieces for the Times, and has also been at other major media outlets.  An interesting background too--he decided to pursue the medical profession while he was a PhD student in physics at the University of California, Berkeley!  How do people become such brainiacs?

Anyway, back to the NY Times essay by Jauhar.  It is on heart diseases.  What is of interest is this:
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and rates have risen over the past several decades. South Asian immigrants to the United States, like me, develop earlier and more malignant heart disease and have higher death rates than any other major ethnic group in this country.
The reasons for this have not been determined. 
One grandfather of mine--my mother's father--died from a cardiac event that, incidentally, was not his first either.  My grandmother--father's mother--died from an enlarged heart condition.  Whether or not that elevates my risk level is, well, we will find out within the next twenty-four years ;)

Jauhar writes about the Farmingham study that was initiated in 1948 with a key goal "to establish risk factors for coronary heart disease."  He quickly reviews there the research that went into identifying the risk factors that we now think is common sense--like high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking.  

But, those were about people who were of White European stock.  
Traditional cardiac risk models, developed by studying mostly white Americans, don’t fully apply to ethnic communities. This is a knowledge gap that must be filled in the coming years.
I need to remind myself that this was a guy who was on track to get his PhD in physics and after a career change, has been a cardiologist for years now!

So, why the "masala" in the title?  Did I have it there in order to provide a hint that the spices are killing South Asians?  Nope.
Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health have started such a study. Named Mediators of Atherosclerosis in South Asians Living in America, or Masala, it has enrolled about 900 South Asian men and women in two large metropolitan areas, the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago.
I think that the researchers had decided a priori that the study would have a name that would also be a cultural reference, and then they came up with an acceptable scientific expansion of "Masala" ;)
Researchers are focusing on novel risk factors, including malignant forms of cholesterol (previous research has suggested that South Asians may have smaller and denser cholesterol particles that are more prone to causing hardening of the arteries), as well as other social, cultural and genetic determinants.
Hmmm ... for all I know, the tasty European butter that I prefer is transforming into artery-hardening cholesterol!  Oh yeah, there is a cardiologist in the family--he is not an Indian-American but is married to one though ;)  

1 comment:

Ramesh said...

Time to go to the neighbourhood Walmart and make a beeline for your favourite BP machine.

European butter or ghee - what's the difference. Same vice. By the way, what's your grouse against American butter. Or for that matter, I Can't Believe Its Not Butter ?? (Yay Yay - the P&G rival commenter doesn't have an equivalent product :):) )

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