“I’ve always thought of myself as athletic and in good shape,” says Meenu Mehta, a 49-year-old mother of two whose friends still complimented her appearance. “But that was six years ago. The truth is I’m actually 15 pounds overweight.”
After a knee injury, the former model stopped riding her bike and working out, but her family and friends continued to support her—feeding her self-perception of being healthy and fit and denying the reality of her increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
So even when her primary care physician expressed some concern over her lipid profile, Mehta wasn’t worried. She knew South Asians had a higher risk of heart disease, but thought the problem was largely confined to men. Reluctantly, she took her doctor’s advice, however, and accompanied her husband to get an assessment at the South Asian Heart Center.
Even though South Asian women—unlike the general population of women—have nearly an equal risk as South Asian men of suffering a heart attack at an earlier age, Mehta herself had never heard of a South Asian woman with heart problems. She knew plenty of them with diabetes and high blood pressure, but did not connect these conditions with heart disease. She expected it to be her husband who needed attention, because he already was taking Lipitor for cholesterol.
Before the appointment, she and her husband were ambivalent about the upcoming assessment. “We secretly didn’t believe it was necessary,” she says. “We approached our preassessment interview with a bad attitude. We weren’t even honest about our eating habits; we made it sound like we ate better than we did.”
Following the interview and blood screening, Mehta and her husband sat down together with the counselor to hear the initial results. It was “a revelation.”
“Based on our measurements, she talked about our ‘abdominal obesity,’” says Mehta. “The report was awful. It made a strong visual impression—all color-coded with ‘danger’ spots—green, yellow, and red. Mine was all red. The nurse sat me down and said, ‘If you don’t clean up your act, you’re going to have a heart attack or a stroke.’ My husband’s report wasn’t nearly as bad as mine.”
The counselor and the center’s medical director explained the genetic markers that make South Asians four times more likely to have heart disease than the general population. They began to recommend changes to Mehta’s diet and lifestyle. She was impressed at the cultural specificity of the advice.
“They recommended simple things I could follow,” Mehta says. “An eating plan coupled with advice to walk for 10 minutes after every meal, exercise 5-7 times a week for 45 minutes at a time, reduce sugar intake, cut back on wine. I left there knowing I had to change—but I also left there with sound, actionable direction. I knew what I had to do.”
Since then, Mehta has lost those 15 pounds, cut her cholesterol from 350 to 142, and all her numbers have improved “phenomenally.” She has stumbled occasionally—last summer her cholesterol edged up to 240 again—but she has always been able to get back on track.
“The counselors at the center follow you and remind you about each step,” she says. “They keep making simple suggestions that are easy to follow. They’re dedicated people; they chase you down. My contact calls me regularly and then calls again if I don’t respond. Even when I was on vacation, they emailed me.”
It works—partly, she says, because she’s doing it for all the right reasons. “It was not out of vanity. I tried the vanity routine and it didn’t work.
“Now, everyone says, ‘You look wonderful; have you lost weight?’ I say, ‘Yes, I had to. It was a matter of life and death.’ South Asian women need to know the facts about heart disease.”
She credits the South Asian Heart Center with giving her the support necessary to reduce her heart risk. “I know someone is watching over me,” she said. “They’re holding me accountable—and that’s the key to my success.”
The organization is gearing up to hold their annual fundraiser gala, “Scarlet Night.” Money raised supports educational outreach, participant screening and individualized prevention planning and follow-up. The event will feature a banquet, silent auction, dance performances by Project Pulse and Sangeet Group, and music by DJ Salim.