South Asian people in Canada have higher rates of heart disease, double the rate of diabetes and are more prone to becoming overweight compared to white people, according to a new study out of McMaster University.

The study analyzed 50 interrelated papers on the subject and was published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

It’s an important subject, says researcher Sonia Anand, seeing as there are more than one million South Asian people (from places like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) living in Canada, which makes up about three per cent of our population.

“And if you go to India today, there are about a million instances of type 2 diabetes,” Anand told CBC Hamilton.

For the study, research examined data collected in Canada between 1979 to 2007 that included over 5.8 million people. Collectively, the studies suggest that people of South Asian decent have a higher prevalence of heart disease (like angina, coronary artery bypass or stroke) than white people.

Death rates high

Death rates for coronary artery disease were also high, the study says: 42 per cent for South Asian men compared to 29 per cent for white men and 29 per cent versus 19 per cent for women. South Asian people are also more likely to have diabetes and hypertension than white people.

Sonia Anand

Sonia Anand is a professor of medicine of the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton. (McMaster University)

And when the study’s authors compared South Asians to white people of the same body size, they had higher percentages of body fat and more abdominal fat, and South Asian women had a higher waist –to-hip ratio – all key risk factors for heart disease.

On the plus side, South Asians were less likely to be clinically obese and 60 per cent less likely to smoke than white Canadians, the study shows.

Anand, who is a professor of medicine of the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University, says she has been doing research in this field for 20 years, so she long suspected results like these. “It reaffirms what we thought we knew,” she said.

What's the cause?

But why are South Asian people more likely to face these problems? That answer isn’t so easy to find, and is still being studied, Anand says. Researchers are looking at the “genetic underpinnings” for people but also in the womb conditions in utero.

“It’s quite complicated, so I can’t say if it’s genetics only,” Anand said.

The study’s findings show a need to develop a standardized surveillance system by ethnic groups in Canada for non-communicable diseases like cancer and lung diseases, she says.

"Such a system would generate information that would help shape health services, policies and programs aimed at particularly high-risk ethnic groups," Anand said in a press release.

So what can South Asian people do to mitigate these dangers? Lifestyle choices like regular exercise and eating well – specifically with a low carb diet are important, she says.

“South Asians of all ages should be aware and careful.”