20th January, 20216 min read

South Asian health: what you need to know

Medical reviewer:
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Ann Nainan
Claire Fielden
Claire Fielden
Last reviewed: 21/12/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

While everyone’s health is unique, and influenced by many different things, it’s worth thinking about your ethnic group when making decisions about your health. This is because the types of issues you get may be affected by genetic and social factors in your background.

Some diseases occur more often in particular ethnic groups. This doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get that condition, however – it’s just that your risk may be a bit higher than people with a different background.

Here you can find out what health conditions may be more likely to affect you if you’re South Asian, and what you can do to reduce your risk.

What kinds of people are classed as South Asian?

The following countries are in South Asia:

  • Afghanistan
  • Bangladesh
  • Bhutan
  • India
  • Maldives
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan
  • Sri Lanka

If you’re from one of these countries, you are South Asian. If one of your parents or grandparents is from one of these countries, you are second-generation or third-generation South Asian, or of South Asian descent. There are more than 1.75 billion South Asian people in the world.

Map of India

What health conditions can affect South Asians?

Your life choices and culture can play a role in whether you get certain health problems. For example, some people tend to eat lower-fat diets as part of their culture, which can be good for health. On the other hand, heavy smoking is common in some cultures, which is bad for health.

If you know that people of your ethnic group are more likely to get a particular type of illness, you may be able to reduce your risk by making different lifestyle choices.

If you’re South Asian or of South Asian origin, you could be at higher risk of getting some of these health conditions.

Coronary heart disease

Research from several countries suggests that people of South Asian origin may be about twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease compared with white Europeans. This applies to people living in South Asia and in other countries.

Coronary heart disease is when fatty deposits block your coronary arteries – the blood vessels that carry blood to your heart. If the blood can’t get through to your heart, it can lead to a heart attack.

Type 2 diabetes

Studies have shown that people of South Asian origin are more likely to get type 2 diabetes. In the UK, for example, it’s been reported that the likelihood of South Asians developing type 2 diabetes is 6 times higher than for Europeans.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body either isn’t making enough of a hormone called insulin, or can’t use the insulin it has made. This means that a type of sugar, called glucose, builds up in your blood, instead of being used by your body for energy. High levels of glucose in your blood can cause damage to your arteries, which could lead to a heart attack or stroke.

A diabetic patient in his kitchen testing his blood sugar prior to eating a healthy meal.

Eye and kidney problems

People of South Asian descent are also more likely to get the group of eye conditions called glaucoma, and kidney disease – it’s thought that type 2 diabetes increases the risk of both of these problems. You can read more about kidney issues in South Asian people here.

Mental health issues

Anyone may struggle with their mental health at some point in their life. But it’s thought that mental health can be a difficult subject to talk about in some South Asian communities – and this can make people feel alone and ashamed.

South Asian people living in other countries may also face racism and discrimination, which can be upsetting, or even dangerous. This can be very stressful, and have a negative effect on mental health.

What can I do to reduce my risk?

As well as your ethnic origin, there are some other risk factors for illness that you can’t change – such as your age and family history. But making lifestyle changes can help make certain health conditions less likely.

Physical health

If you’re South Asian or of South Asian descent and you put on weight, you’re more likely to carry extra fat around your tummy – which increases your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart problems.

Eating a healthy diet can help you keep to a healthy weight, as well as helping to keep your blood glucose and blood pressure at a healthy level. Traditional South Asian diets contain lots of healthy foods, such as vegetables, lentils and beans, and fish. But adding too much salt, or fats such as ghee, butter, and coconut oil, can make your diet less healthy. The fried foods eaten in some South Asian cultures can also lead to weight gain if you eat them too often.

Smiling woman cutting zucchini in kitchen at home

Mental health

Getting mental health support can be a difficult experience for some South Asian people. But speaking to someone you trust can be the first step to finding the help you need – whether it’s a friend, family member or a healthcare professional.

If you’re not in a South Asian country, you might be worried that the healthcare professional you see won’t understand the cultural factors that may be affecting your mental health. In this case, some people find that asking to see someone from a similar background can help.

Key points

  • South Asian people originate from countries in South Asia, such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka
  • South Asian people tend to be at greater risk of heart problems, type 2 diabetes, and eye and kidney problems than white Europeans
  • eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce the risk of these health conditions
  • some South Asian communities may find it difficult to talk about mental health
  • it can be helpful to talk about mental health problems with someone from the same background
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