February is American Heart Month. There’s a lot that we women need to know about heart health in our South Asian community. We always tend to focus on the fun aspects of what our heart does. We focus on romance, candy, and cards with our little ones, Galentine’s fun with our besties. This month brings the reminder that heart health is important too.
The American Heart Association’s #GoRedforWomen and the National Institutes for Health’s #OurHearts movements both highlight the sobering reality that heart disease is actually the number one killer for women in the U.S., causing 1 out of every 3 deaths each year – or approximately one every minute.
Even worse, South Asians have among the highest rates of cardiometabolic diseases, like diabetes, high cholesterol and more. When I talk to my South Asian patients, I often reference the signs we see all around us such as the aunties in saris revealing their apple body type (weight carried in the abdominal area is the most dangerous when it comes to metabolic disease). I reference the family get-togethers or community events rich in pakora, bhajia or other fried foods and mithai (dessert), the strong family histories of diabetes or heart disease, the focus during their upbringing on academics over a healthy lifestyle, and more.
This is a real problem for our community, but the good news is that there is so much we can do now to prevent or reduce our risk of developing serious heart disease in the future. Knowing that 90% of women have at least one risk factor (!!), here are my top 3 tips for heart health self-care this month:
Know your risk factors for heart disease
Being desi counts. So probably most of you readers have that risk. Also, take stock of your genetic. Does anyone in your family (siblings, parents, grandparents) have a history of heart disease, heart attack or stroke? If you’re not sure, now is a great time to chat with your parents and learn more about your family history. Looking at your own personal health history may provide some clues too. Other cardiometabolic diagnoses, like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS, incredibly common in South Asian women), high cholesterol or diabetes, as well as certain complications of pregnancy like gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, hint at an elevated risk of future heart disease.
As I mentioned above, the apple body type is also a risk factor. Though many South Asian Americans may look around and feel that they are not as “big” as others, it is important to recognize that risks are higher for us. At lower weights or body mass indexes, we South Asians tend to have more abdominal fat and cardiovascular risk than most other racial or ethnic groups.
Stay up-to-date on your primary care
Ensuring that weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels are all within range is an important first step. Establishing care with a true primary care provider is the key. Many obstetrician-gynecologists do not consider themselves primary care providers and may not complete all your health screenings, so it may be worth a discussion for you to understand whether or not you need a separate primary care doctor.
Importantly, those with PCOS (a common diagnosis that impacts 15% or more of women and accounts for nearly half of the desi couples seeking fertility care) are at elevated risk for diabetes and weight gain, and recommendations outline a more aggressive screening calendar. Though it’s easy to get behind on these visits, just remember – you wouldn’t ever skip pediatrician visits for your little ones, and your healthcare is just as important!
Check your lifestyle
Staying physically active, following a healthy diet that fits your metabolism and body, and avoiding smoking are all great choices that benefit your heart. Getting structured exercise through a dedicated workout a few times a week is ideal. Running around and being active with your little ones during playtime can do the trick too! As for diet here are some tips on modeling healthy choices…
- Avoid processed foods
- Limit consumption of food or drinks with added sugar (including not just dessert, but also soda and juice)
- Keep serving sizes appropriate (no matter what your mom, MIL or auntie says!) This helps you and also gives your kids a great head start on living healthfully.
One of the biggest myths in our community is that being vegetarian is automatically healthy. Many desi folks fill their diet with carbs (heaping plates of white Basmati rice, anyone??), oily or fried foods or snacks, and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Make sure you understand how best to eat for your body!
So, this and every February, in between all your other festivities and celebrations of love, make sure to take the time to honor your heart health by taking stock of your risk factors and lifestyle, and catching up on overdue doctors’ visits. The truest form of self-care is prioritizing your health, so make sure to carve out time for you! I see plenty of South Asians that are genetically thin but cardiovascular wise unhealthy – so don’t think you are immune from this concern based on weight alone.
We should all make sure we’re eating well, getting exercise and ensuring our preventive care includes up-to-date screening appropriate to our risk factors. With raising awareness and practicing self-care, we can turn the tide of heart disease in our community!
Written by Dr. Rashmi Kudesia who specializes in fertility and is a women’s health advocate. You can find Rashmi on Instagram at @rkudesia.