Stress wears down bodily systems and increases the demand for essential vitamins and minerals, contributing to the risk of heart disease. Combine that with a lack of exercise and access to healthy foods, and the risk jumps even higher.
These risk factors are widespread among Puerto Ricans living in the United States, a Hispanic subpopulation with a disproportionately high prevalence of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
Prof. Katherine Tucker of the Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences Department leads the university’s Center for Population Health and Health Disparities, which is tackling the problem. Her research team is conducting a longitudinal study of 1,500 Puerto Rican adults between 45 and 75 years old living in Boston.
She explains that although the study targets Puerto Ricans, heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. Understanding the Puerto Rican study findings can be helpful for everyone, regardless of ethnicity.
“When we experience stress overload or burn out, our bodies react by releasing stress hormones and inflammatory substances to keep stress under control,” says Tucker, who moved from Northeastern University to UMass Lowell in August 2013. “These affect metabolic reactions in the body, which result in an increased requirement for nutrients to maintain healthy tissue. Therefore, to prevent heart disease, diabetes and premature aging, we need to increase consumption of healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Tucker says genetics also plays a role in our health, but do not define our destiny.
"While the Puerto Rican population is genetically predisposed to cardiovascular disease, inheriting the disease is not certain," she says. “It means that some individuals are more susceptible and therefore need to work harder to fight the effects of emotional or physical stressors. It is important to find ways to reduce anxiety, eat more healthy foods and increase physical activity.”
Findings from the Puerto Rican Health Study have shown that diabetes and heart disease risk are strongly associated with dietary quality in this population. In particular, higher risk of these conditions has been linked with low intake and variety of fruit and vegetables, and high intake of refined carbohydrates such as white rice and white bread.
Encouraging Change within the Community
Now in its 10th year, the research project has launched the Healthy Heart Initiative for Latino adults in Boston neighborhoods, led by Research Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel, a member of the Center for Population Health and Heath Disparities Center team.
More than 80 people are already participating in nutrition education workshops, exercise classes and support groups. “People across all Hispanic backgrounds are taking part in a fun and educational program about good health,” says Tucker. “With our partner, the Boston Center for Youth and Families, we are reaching out to Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and others with programs that improve physical and emotional health.”