Five years ago, Nimesh Mehta, co-founder and CEO of LumenData, was 30 lbs. overweight and taking six medications a day to mitigate the onset of high cholesterol and diabetes.
Mehta’s father had heart disease and died at 68. Another family relative died at 50. Mehta – who co-chaired the South Asian Heart Center’s Scarlet Night’ gala here Mar. 9 with molecular biologist Poornima Kumar, and which raised over $266,000 – said he had an epiphany about his own health, and started seeking answers.
“I was looking for a program which would prevent, rather than cure heart disease,” Mehta told India-West, noting that contemporary medical practices are reactive, addressing a disease only after it has occurred.
“The South Asian Heart Center is one of the few places that focuses on prevention,” stated Mehta, adding that the Center’s non-intrusive, gentle coaching once a month helps its participants maintain healthy lifestyle choices, including a modified diet and regular exercise.
Over the next decade, Mehta said he hopes to see the Center expand to other cities with large Indian American populations, such as Chicago, Boston, Houston and New York. This year’s gala was the biggest event since the inception of the organization, he said.
More than 800 people attended the SAHC’s fifth annual gala, which raised more than $266,000 for the non-profit organization. The Center gets 39 percent of its budget from its affiliate, El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif. The remaining portion of the organization’s $304,000 annual budget is derived from corporate sponsors and individual contributions.
Ashish Mathur, co-founder and executive director of the South Asian Heart Center, told India-West he felt overwhelmed by the heart-felt support from sponsors and individuals attending the gala. He expects that after all tabulations have been made, this year’s gala will have raised $300,000.
Mathur stressed that 90 cents of every dollar is used for the organization’s mission of outreach, prevention, education and research. Almost two-thirds of the budget is dedicated to providing screenings, which determine a person’s propensity towards heart disease. The Center also focuses on teaching physicians about the South Asian American community’s increased propensity for heart disease.
The Center has just concluded a study using data derived from screenings of South Asian Americans. The study found that people who are coached once a month on behavior, diet and lifestyle changes were more likely to stick to new behaviors for the long-term, compared to those that were not coached. The study observed 492 people over a period of five years; behavioral changes were reflected in better lipid and glucose profiles, said Mathur.
More than 35 percent of Indians globally have some form of heart disease, despite the lack of traditional risk factors, summarized noted cardiologist Enas A. Enas in a report presented in 2008 at the Indo-U.S. Health Summit.
By the year 2015, nearly 62 percent of Indians will have heart disease, with 37 percent having their first cardiac incident before the age of 50, revealed the report, adding that Indians around the globe have the highest rates of coronary artery disease with first heart attacks occurring about 10 years earlier than other populations.
Genetically, 40 percent of Indians have abnormally high levels of lipoprotein(a), which contributes to plaque buildup and abnormal blood clotting. Physicians are rarely aware of this propensity in Indian Americans and do not test for excess lipoprotein (a).
Cesar Molina, medical director at SAHC, told India-West heart disease has a new face: young people with young families. “In my practice, I was used to seeing 78-year-old men with heart disease, but it’s not an old man’s disease any longer.”
Heart disease is becoming an epidemic in India as well, said Molina, who attributed the alarming rise in Indian heart attacks to genetics as well as behavioral changes.
A vegetable-based culture is increasingly becoming a refined-grains culture, with increases in white flour and white rice consumption, along with more sugar, explained Molina, who practices cardiology at El Camino Hospital. “India is a beautiful, tropical country, but its people are not eating all the healthy fresh fruits and vegetables around them,” he said.
India has had a long culture of health and fitness and the Center is using a scientific base to rediscover Indian health traditions, such as yoga and ayurveda, to mitigate the impact of heart disease in the South Asian American community.
Columbia Business School Prof. Sheena Iyengar, the keynote speaker at the evening’s sold-out event, used her family’s history to develop her theme of making small daily choices to realize an over-reaching goal or dream.
In an interview with India-West shortly before the gala began, Iyengar – who began losing her eyesight at the age of three and became completely blind by 16 – discussed moving past her difficult childhood to attain success in her career and home life.
Iyengar’s father died of a heart attack when she was 13. Her sister was also blind and it was hard for her mother to raise two blind teenagers singlehandedly.
“I had no goals as a teen. People didn’t know what would become of me,” said Iyengar – the author of “The Art of Choosing” – reflecting on her years as a bullied, loner school kid.
Iyengar’s high school guidance counselor refused to provide her with college manuals, saying her potential for success in academics was limited by her disability.
Fortunately, Iyengar’s capabilities were recognized by a special education teacher, who encouraged the young teenager to apply to the University of Pennsylvania. In 1992, Sheena Iyengar graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.S. in economics from the Wharton School of Business and a B.A. in psychology with a minor in English from the College of Arts and Sciences. She later earned her Ph.D. at Stanford University.
“The power of choice comes from all the little choices you make every day,” Iyengar told India-West. “We often think that we must make enormous changes, but it is really the small changes that define us,” she said.
Tomi Ryba, president and CEO of El Camino Hospital, spoke at the gala and reminded women to take care of themselves by getting screened for heart disease. “The leading cause of death in the world for women is heart disease. It goes unnoticed because we’re too busy taking care of our families to take care of ourselves,” she stressed. Ryba received an award onstage from NBC news anchor Raj Mathai, who emceed the event.
In related news, the South Asian Heart Center announced Mar. 11 that it had joined the “Million Hearts” initiative, developed by the Department of Health and Human Services to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes by 2017.
“The South Asian community is four times as likely to be affected by heart disease compared to the general population, and while we have made great strides in educating our local community, there is still a lot of work to be done,” said Mathur.
“We are honored to have been invited and recognized by Million Hearts™ and are committed to doing our part to support this critical effort and bring prevention and education messages to South Asian communities across the country,” he added.