February is Heart Month

Heart disease and stroke will take one in three Canadians before their time, and is the leading cause of death for women

Heart disease and stroke will take one in three Canadians before their time, and is the leading cause of death for women – more than all cancers combined. The Heart and Stroke Foundation is undertaking even greater action this February – Heart Month – to raise awareness and catalyze Canadians to take action and take charge of their health – both nationally and in our local communities.

It is my privilege to be the inaugural holder of the UBC Heart and Stroke Foundation Professorship in Women’s Cardiovascular Health. I would like to thank the Foundation for their vision in funding this unique professorship for women’s heart health.

The general public still does not appreciate that CVD is the number 1 killer of women, not only in Canada, but also in most of the developed world.  But it is not only the death toll, but also the morbidity, disability and associated hospitalizations that need to be considered to truly appreciate the impact of CVD on women’s lives.

Two out of three Canadian women have one or more major risk factors for CVD.  And while the major risk factors are the same for women and men, diabetes and smoking are much stronger risk factors in women than in men. And, unique to women is pre-eclampsia, or high blood pressure during pregnancy and gestational diabetes during pregnancy. Both increase the risk of CVD later in life.

Historically, research into CVD has focused on men, but this is changing. Women are much more likely to be enrolled in clinical trials of new medications and treatments. And for trials funded by the NIH in the US, they must include women unless there are compelling reasons against their inclusion. More and more, medical journals are requesting sex-specific outcome reporting of trial results, and with the establishment of CIHR’s Institute for Gender and Health there is an increased focus on gender differences across all diseases.

My current work is focused on young women; those 55 years of age and younger. I believe this is an important demographic to study.

While the proportion of young adults having a heart attack remains constant, the proportion of women has increased over the past few years. And the likelihood that they will experience another heart attack, or suffer significant functional deficits or die remains significantly higher than their young male counterparts. We also know that they have a poorer health status at the time of their cardiac event and their recovery does not appear to be as quick or as complete as that of younger men. Indeed, the outcomes of these young women are now more like those of older adults. With the funding for this Professorship, we will expand on this work with a view to not only understanding the reasons for this difference, but also to affect system changes to improve outcomes.

This Professorship is a unique opportunity to improve women’s heart health by fundamentally doing things differently. To expand our understanding of the problems women face with respect to their cardiovascular health, to identify different ways of providing care, and to effect changes in the system of care. This can only be achieved through meaningful and extensive engagement of many stakeholders, including those outside the traditional research realm of universities in large cities.

This February you have 29 days to help make death wait. You can learn more about the preventable risk factors for heart disease and stroke for both men and women, join the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s cause, take action, share and donate at heartandstroke.ca. Please give generously when a volunteer knocks on your door or contacts you online.

Dr. Karin Humphries

UBC-Heart and Stroke Foundation Professor in Women’s Cardiovascular Health