How do race and ethnicity affect heart risk?

In recent years, many people curious about their heritage have done at-home DNA tests such as those sold by 23andMe or Ancestry. By analyzing variations in your DNA, the tests can reveal where your distant ancestors may have lived, providing clues to your racial and ethnic heritage. These results are usually presented in percentages by geographic location — for example, Western Europe, Northern Africa, Central America, and Southern Asia.

But does that information reveal any hints about your risk of cardiovascular disease? In the United States, certain racial and ethnic groups face a higher risk of dying from heart disease than others. The latest statistics from the American Heart Association show the highest risk among blacks. Non-Hispanic whites are second, with the lowest risk seen among Hispanics (see “Ethnic and race categories in the United States”).

Ethnic and race categories in the United StatesEthnicity refers to a group of people who share a geographic area, religion, culture, or language. The two main ethnic groups in the United States are classified as either “Hispanic or Latino” or “not Hispanic or Latino.” Hispanics and Latinos (17%)* trace their origins to Spanish-speaking countries. But they can belong to the white, black, Native Indian, or Asian races.Race refers to common characteristics passed down through the genes. Non-Hispanic whites (63%) have roots in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. Blacks (13%) have ancestors from any of the black racial groups of Africa or Afro-Caribbean countries. Asians (5%) may have origins anywhere from India to Japan.*Percentages are approximate values from the latest U.S. Census.

Inherited vs. acquired risks

Still, diversity within different racial groups means that genetic traits common to some groups can’t be generalized to an entire race. For example, two black people may be more genetically different from one another than either of them is from a white person. And non-genetic factors can have powerful effects, says Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Elliott Antman, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“A person of any race can inherit a low-risk genetic profile but then grow up in an environment without access to healthy foods or safe places to exercise,” he says. These and other socioeconomic factors may also induce a chronic state of stress that is difficult to quantify but is now increasingly recognized as an important risk factor for heart disease.

Blood pressure: An added risk for blacks?

One possible explanation for the higher heart disease risk among blacks living in this country may be a genetic difference that predisposes them to high blood pressure. Compared with whites, blacks tend to be more salt sensitive, which means their bodies tend to hold on to sodium and water. “That may be an evolutionary survival advantage when you’re living in a hot, dry climate, such as in Africa,” says Dr. Antman. But in America, with its cooler climate (and widely available high-sodium foods), it’s a disadvantage, he adds. Extra sodium and water raise blood volume, which in turn raises blood pressure.

The Hispanic paradox

As the largest ethnic minority in the United States, Hispanic Americans are a fairly diverse group, although nearly two-thirds are of Mexican origin. Despite having higher rates of obesity and diabetes, Hispanics living in America are about 25% less likely to die of heart disease than non-Hispanic whites. This so-called Hispanic paradox is not fully understood, although some experts believe that their lower smoking rates could be a factor. Just under 11% of Hispanics smoke cigarettes, compared with about 16% among non-Hispanics.

Asians: East vs. South

People of Asian descent are a small but growing population in this country. Those from East Asia (mostly from China, Japan, and Korea) have lower rates of cardiovascular disease than other Americans. In contrast, those with South Asian roots — from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — tend to have higher rates. The reason may stem from a genetic tendency to accumulate fat in the belly, which is dangerous for the heart.

While it’s helpful to be aware of these racial and ethnic risk factors, your heritage is just one of many factors that influence your heart’s health, says Dr. Antman. Focus more on the factors you can change, such as eating a low-sodium diet, avoiding tobacco, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight.

Below are spiritual recipe for health and wellness: Matthew E. McLaren

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4 NIV

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Romans 12:12 NIV

When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy. Psalm 94:19 NIV

The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad. Psalm 118:24 NIV

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. Habakkuk 3:17-18 NIV

You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Psalm 16:11 NIV

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8-9 NIV

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. Isaiah 61:10 NIV

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