A unique Mount Sinai study focused on a multiethnic, underserved community in Harlem found that young non-Hispanic Black adult participants were twice as likely to have atherosclerosis as young Hispanic adults.
The research, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in July 2022, is part of the FAMILIA Project at Mount Sinai Heart, a pioneering trial created by Valentin Fuster, MD, PhD, President of Mount Sinai Heart and Physician-in-Chief of The Mount Sinai Hospital.
The new study is one of the first to evaluate atherosclerosis—the plaque build-up in the arteries that can lead to a heart attack or stroke—in asymptomatic young populations. Its findings emphasize the importance of early screening and lifestyle interventions in high-risk minority groups to improve their cardiovascular (CV) health.
“What’s interesting about this study is that Black individuals appear to be more vulnerable to atherosclerosis early in life than people of Hispanic origin, even when adjusting for known cardiovascular and lifestyle risk factors such as smoking, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, and cholesterol,” Dr. Fuster says. “This can then put them at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, suggesting the existence of emerging or undiscovered cardiovascular risk factors in this population.”
The study is part of a multinational effort to intervene early in the lives of children, their caretakers, and teachers so they can form a lifetime of heart-healthy habits. These new results come after highly successful interventions involving more than 500 preschoolers, caretakers, and educators at 15 Head Start schools in the Harlem section of Manhattan, an urban area that is socioeconomically disadvantaged—a situation commonly linked to higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and other health issues.
The FAMILIA team focused on 436 adults, including preschoolers’ family members, caretakers, teachers, and school staff. Of that group, 147 participants were non-Hispanic Black and 289 were Hispanic, with an average age of 38; 80 percent were women. Non-Hispanic white, Asian, and Native American groups each formed a small proportion of participants (2.3 percent, 2.3 percent, and 0.3 percent, respectively) and people in those groups were excluded from the analysis.
Each participant answered a comprehensive questionnaire at the start of the study, addressing their nutrition, physical activity, tobacco use, and alcohol consumption, and whether they had conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, or a family history of health problems. They also had their weight recorded, and blood pressure and cholesterol checked.
Overall cardiovascular risk factors were prevalent for both ethnic groups at baseline. Thirty percent of non-Hispanic Black participants had hypertension, almost triple the rate of the Hispanic group, 11 percent. Conversely, non-Hispanic Black participants had lower rates of dyslipidemia—unhealthy levels of lipids/fat in the blood (18 percent) compared to the Hispanic group at 27 percent, and better eating habits, consuming more fruits and vegetables. Researchers used these data to calculate a predicted cardiovascular risk score for each group. They found the overall risk of having a cardiovascular event in 10 years was low for both Black and Hispanic participants—around four percent for both groups.
Participants also had 3D vascular ultrasounds to determine if they had atherosclerosis in their carotid (neck) and femoral (leg) arteries. These vascular ultrasounds pointed to a significant discrepancy between the groups. Overall, nine percent of participants had subclinical atherosclerosis (nearly one in ten participants showed at least one artery with plaque). Also, the rate of plaque build-up in the arteries was two times higher among non-Hispanic Black than Hispanic participants. The results were consistent even after adjusting for classic cardiovascular risk factors including age, sex, body mass index, hypertension, diabetes, and cholesterol; lifestyle factors including diet, physical activity, and tobacco use; and socioeconomic factors such as employment status.
The study noted some limitations and areas for further investigation. “The population included in the study was from a speciﬁc area, Harlem, with known intrinsic health disparities compared with other areas in New York City,” the study says. “This could, to some extent, limit our results’ generalizability.” In addition, “Given the heterogeneity among racial and ethnic groups, assessing associations between self-reported racial or ethnic identity and disease is complex and is vulnerable to confounding due to the effects of socioeconomic inequality, environmental disparity, unequal access to care, and other possible emerging or unknown CV risk factors.”
However, the study is one of the ﬁrst to assess the presence of subclinical atherosclerosis by 3D vascular ultrasounds in an underrepresented younger population, the research team says, and it contributes to the understanding of higher rates of CV disease observed at an early age in disadvantaged communities.
“These findings may in part help to explain the observed differences in cardiovascular disease prevalence between racial and ethnic groups,” Dr. Fuster says. “Until underlying biological factors and other undiscovered cardiovascular risk factors are better understood and can be addressed by precision medicine, affordable noninvasive imaging techniques such as the portable 3D vascular ultrasounds used in this study, which are easily used and affordable, can be an important form of early detection in underserved communities, and provide valuable information about population disparities and increase the precision of health promotion and prevention programs.”
Dr. Fuster and his team will expand the FAMILIA program to schools across the five boroughs of New York City starting in September 2022. This project will also evaluate how family socioeconomic status and teachers’ characteristics may affect the implementation and efficacy of school-based health promotion programs.
The FAMILIA project was funded by a grant from the American Heart Association.
Valentin Fuster, MD, PhD
President of Mount Sinai Heart, and Physician-in-Chief of The Mount Sinai Hospital