SINGAPORE - Heart failure is more likely to hit people in Singapore at a much younger age than those in the West, a study has found.
This is also true of most people in the region: Experts found that the average age of heart failure in 11 places in Asia is 60, compared with 70 in Europe and 72 in the United States.
Heart failure does not mean the heart has stopped working, but that its pumping power is weaker than normal.
Asians have heart failure at a younger age because they tend to be more prone to diseases like diabetes, say doctors.
For instance, about six in 10 of the Singapore patients were diabetic, and more than seven in 10 had high blood pressure.
The proportion is higher than that for Europeans and Americans.
But doctors say they do not know exactly why Asians are more susceptible to diabetes and more studies are needed.
Associate Professor Carolyn Lam of the National University Heart Centre, which is leading the study, yesterday told reporters: "Asians can look very skinny, but it doesn't mean we're healthy.
"These things are the silent killers because we don't feel them until they manifest themselves as heart failure or a heart attack."
The results were the preliminary findings of the Asian Sudden Cardiac Death in Heart Failure study started in 2012, which looked at 8,000 patients in all.
Its first phase covered 2,094 heart failure patients from 11 Asian territories, including Singapore, China, India and Malaysia.
The next phase will last an estimated 21/2 more years. Researchers will look at another form of heart failure more common in elderly women, in which the heart cannot fill with enough blood though its pumping power remains normal.
The fact that heart failure affects Asians at a younger age is extremely significant, the director of the heart centre, Associate Professor Tan Huay Cheem, told reporters yesterday.
Such patients can be forced to stop work because of their condition, and this means a financial problem for many as well.
"All these patients were economically productive - they were all working," he said, referring to those in the study.
Cardiovascular diseases - including heart failure - are a growing problem in Singapore.
In 2011, stroke and heart disease combined killed more people than cancer.
Heart failure is more common in men, and made up 6,000 hospital admissions in 2011. Symptoms include breathlessness, fatigue and swollen ankles.
"This may seem benign, but imagine if you cannot shower... without getting breathless," said Prof Lam. "You can imagine how dependent that could feel."
One man who knows this feeling well is Mr Mohamad Rolan Mohamad Zain, 62.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol did not stop the avid cyclist from taking frequent rides of more than 100km with friends.
But during one of those trips last year, the operations executive suffered a heart attack that left him unable to walk for some time.
"At that time, I felt very lonely," he recalled.
Mr Rolan has fully recovered, and said the illness gave him the extra push to kick his lifelong smoking habit.
"A lot of beautiful things happened, despite me being not well," he said.
"To me, it's really back to normal. I can walk, I can cycle."
This article was first published on June 3, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.