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New Heart Program From UC Scientist Is Keeping South Asians Across U.S. Healthy

Ann Thompson
Lata Samu and Sakthivel Sadayappan, PhD are on a mission to educate South Asians on the dangers of genetic heart disease and lifestyle changes that could save them.

Research shows South Asians are four times more likely to develop heart disease than the rest of the population. One University of Cincinnati scientist is moving beyond genetics to talk about risk and prevention.

In the midst of collecting saliva for one of his studies, Director of UC Heart Research Sakthivel Sadayappan, Ph.D., realized the South Asian community needed a greater awareness of its risk for heart disease  and a list of preventative measures to save lives.

The solution? Red Saree, an awareness campaign he started in Cincinnati in 2018 and it is now spreading across the country. Chapters include Boston, San Francisco, Detroit and Chicago.

At first it took some convincing to make South Asians proactive. "They don't think that way," Sadayappan says. "It's kind of attitude. I look thin, I look lean. Why do I need this awareness? Why do I care about my health? I look healthy, but in reality it is not."

He says the South Asian diet is high in fat and sugar. While the body circumference is smaller, the waist is bigger and they have increased risk for an enlarged heart. Like some other cultures, Sadayappan says a big belly is a sign of wealth. He is working to change that.

Red Saree volunteer Lata Samu's brother died at age 39 of a heart attack. She says he was lean and looked fine. "At the time we were thinking 39 is too young. A lot of time you don't really look for heart conditions or even health conditions until you are close to about 50."

Shortly after his death, Samu got tested and found she had high blood pressure and cholesterol and was at risk for diabetes. She has since changed her lifestyle.

While telling South Asians about the risks, Sadayappan is also working to understand the role a protein in humans plays to maintain normal cardiac function and cardio protection during heart attacks as well as the development of enlarged hearts.

"We need to do something to save our people, to give them the information they need," he says.

South Asia is the second fastest growing population in the U.S.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.