Asians have been found to store fat differently.
Studies conducted in the UK and the US in recent years have highlighted significant differences in the health issues experienced by the South Asian community compared to the general population.
Being aware of the common health issues that are more prevalent among South Asian people can encourage earlier detection and implementation of preventative measures.
However, historically, this area of research has been severely lacking.
Unethical clinical testing on the Indian population was regularly carried out, but this was not to improve the medical treatment of South Asians.
Rather, it was to take advantage of the cheaper costs of carrying out riskier medical testing practices in India compared to globally.
In this article, we will take a closer look at some of the most common health issues affecting South Asians and the need for more research in certain areas.
Type 2 diabetes in particular has been a health issue attributed to South Asians.
This type of diabetes is attributed to not being able to break down sugar in the blood level.
This lifelong disease can mean you need to check and maintain sugar levels continuously.
It can also lead to further worsened health if not treated. This disease can lead to further serious health complications with the eyes, heart, and nerves.
According to Diabetes.co.uk, “People from South Asian communities are known to be up to 6 times more likely to have type 2 diabetes than the general population.”
The reason South Asian communities are highly susceptible to diabetes is not conclusive.
Researchers are looking into various potential causes including lifestyle, cultural differences, and even historical famines and their effects on the body.
However, some studies suggest a gene in South Asian communities means that insulin concentration is higher after ingesting sugar than for Caucasians.
A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain gets interrupted.
The affected brain tissue can then start dying within minutes due to not having access to oxygen and nutrients.
This can lead to very worrying effects such as confusion, paralysis, and numbness in limbs and faces.
A recent study into strokes and the difference between Asians from Britain and Asians who live in India showed a marked difference.
In figures for Ischaemic strokes, it was found that:
“Patients in the ISA (Indian South Asian) and BSA (British South Asian) groups experienced stroke 19.5 years and 7.2 years earlier than their WB (White British) counterparts.”
Quick recognition is key to being able to treat a stroke and knowing that this disease disproportionately affects South Asians may just be a lifesaver.
Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease (CHD) is caused by fatty deposits building up on the walls of the arteries around the heart.
South Asians have a disproportionally high occurrence of CHD due to the way our bodies store fat.
Fat can accumulate around the organs in the abdominal area including the liver.
This is why stomach and abdominal fat can be easier to gain for South Asians.
This may also be linked to increasing likelihood of diabetes.
CHD, stroke, and diabetes are among the more common diseases South Asians contract and are linked together closely.
Doctors and GPs are more aware of the occurrence of these issues in SA communities and this knowledge is becoming more common.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can cause sufferers to stop and start breathing.
It can be quite serious if left unchecked. Long pauses in breath when sleeping can lead to fatigue and poor-quality sleep.
Sleep apnea can be caused by obesity, poor weight management, and further health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and mood swings.
South Asians are more susceptible to this disorder than their white counterparts.
South Asians have a 43% prevalence compared to 22% for white people.
Desi individuals are also likely to have the more severe and dangerous form of this disorder.
Gum Disease and Mouth Cancer
The tradition of chewing tobacco is high amongst our communities.
This leads to more issues around gums in the form of gum disease and can even lead to increasing risks of mouth cancer.
Clinical research findings from one study concluded:
“All Asian groups (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and Asian Others) had more periodontal pocketing whereas White East European, Black African and Bangladeshi had more attachment loss than White British.”
Periodontal disease has also been linked with CHD which is another health concern Asians are at higher risk of.
Weight-Related Health Issues
A recent study has found that South Asians have higher weight-related disease risks at lower BMIs than other ethnicities.
This may be due to the Eurocentric body/health standards used across the medical profession.
This means that South Asians can have more weight-related disease risks such as hyperglycemia, CHD, and diabetes whilst still technically being classed as a healthy weight when using standard BMI scores.
Asians have been found to store fat differently so this could be a cause.
Dr Syed (@desidoc.md) is a South Asian health practitioner and doctor.
He explains that this difference may be due to the generational implications of the various famines caused by British colonial rule in India:
“South Asians are starvation adapted due to having to survive at least 31 major famines, especially during the 19th century along with chronic undernourishment, surviving a single famine doubles the risk of diabetes and obesity in the next generation even without a famine.”
Depression and Anxiety
Some studies have been carried out on mental health issues amongst South Asians In the UK and US.
Information on mental health in South Asian communities has shown that depression and anxiety are higher in this group.
The higher rate is also common amongst other immigrant groups – pointing to some common factors that can accumulate to cause increased worsening of mental health.
Migration-related stress, unemployment, and poverty can interact with intergenerational conflict, discrimination, and cultural expectations to exacerbate any underlying issues.
One specific area of mental health that disproportionately affects South Asian women of the ages 16-24 in particular is self-harm.
This highly stigmatised issue is rarely spoken about or acknowledged in Asian communities and this may be due to specific cultural reasons.
One study conducted indicated the following findings:
“Predictors of mental distress among young South Asian women is a history of domestic violence.”
Studies have found depression, anxiety, PTSD, loss of self-esteem, and suicidality to result from verbal and physical abuse.
Additional forms of marital conflict, including financial coercion and forced isolation, also contribute to the gender disparity in depression and are often a result of a perceived inferior status of women.
This confirms that cultural factors and stigma can directly and disproportionately afflict women of South Asian descent.
The higher rates of domestic violence and marital conflict in which the woman bears the burden lead to a myriad of mental health issues.
This in turn leads to self-harm as a way to cope.
Hepatitis C Is a disease that is transferred from blood to blood.
It is highly common for migrants and travellers from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to unknowingly contract the disease and find out only years later.
If you have had any medical procedures abroad or even beauty treatments, this can increase your likelihood of contracting Hepatitis C through unsterilised equipment.
Hepatitis can lead to liver disease and cancer if left untreated, but it is curable.
Research indicates South Asians are up to 9% more likely to be admitted to hospital for hepatitis than the general population.
Although studies are limited in this area, it has been found that South Asians commonly have issues getting diagnosed with dementia compared to their white British counterparts.
From The Alzheimer Society website:
“Research suggests that we’re likely to see an increase in cases within this community.”
There is no link between being South Asian and a higher likelihood of getting this, however, it is harder to spot in South Asian patients.
In one UK study, the social stigma associated with mental health disorders was the underlying reason that a group of South Asians caring for older adult relatives with dementia did not consult a professional for their relatives’ care.
Due to language barriers, stigma and cultural differences the methods that are usually used to diagnose white patients are not as effective.
Previous studies fail to consider the non-existence of culturally appropriate diagnostic tools.
Studying the health differences across ethnicities has historically been difficult and problematic.
India has the cheapest clinical trials available in the world, leading to scientists taking advantage of sometimes lax ethical practices in the past.
Reforms and regulations in the scientific and medical fields mean these types of studies now have to go through more rigorous ethical screenings.
Encouragingly, a recent influx of funding and interest in the area of South Asian health and access to healthcare has led to some progress.
The first-ever long-term study of 100,000 people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin is currently going on across East London, Manchester, and Bradford.
The Genes and Health study works with volunteers asking them to provide saliva samples and has major national backing.
£25 million of funding was generated with large investors such as the Welcome Trust and NHS National Institute for Health Research.
In a project pioneered by Queen Mary University of London, scientists are actively searching for volunteers to participate in the study. In 2022, they hit 50,000.
The website states: “South Asian people have some of the highest rates of heart disease, diabetes, and poor health in the UK.
“Genes & Health is a research study set up to help fight against these and other major diseases.
“We are currently recruiting volunteers for East London Genes & Health (2015-), Bradford Genes & Health (2019-) and Manchester Genes & Health (2022-).
“By involving large numbers of local Bangladeshi and Pakistani people, the study hopes to find new ways of improving health for communities in the UK and worldwide.”
This study aims to combat the high rate of heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses in South Asian communities.
Scientific research in which the intended outcome is of overall benefit to the South Asian community has been limited.
So, studies like these are a huge step in the right direction toward widening access, awareness, and representation.