Advancing women’s heart and brain health

New research awards highlight health of Indigenous women
Dr. Heather Foulds was named Early Career Women’s Heart and Brain Health Chair.

Dr. Heather Foulds was named Indigenous Early Career Women’s Heart and Brain Health Chair.

In Canada, we lose too many women prematurely to heart disease and stroke. The situation is much worse for Indigenous women, who are more than twice as likely as non-Indigenous women to die from these diseases.

Physical risk factors account for part of the increased risk among Indigenous women. But what is impact of social and cultural factors on these women’s health? 

Dr. Heather Foulds (above) at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Kinesiology is working with members of the Indigenous community to shine a spotlight on the social and cultural factors that may be impacting the heart and brain health of Indigenous women. 

With a team that includes an Indigenous community advisory committee, Indigenous students and research assistants, Dr. Foulds will embark on a series of five studies that incorporate both Indigenous and western approaches, ranging from knowledge translation activities to sharing circles and feasts. The goal is to identify social and cultural factors that could influence women’s risk, and explore ways to improve prevention, detection and treatment.

Dr. Foulds was recently awarded one of two Indigenous Early Career Women’s Heart and Brain Health Chairs. In total four researchers were named to new chair positions focused on women’s health through a partnership between Heart & Stroke and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Here are the other chairs and their research projects.

Dr. Bernice Downey: Improving care for Indigenous women

Dr. Bernice DowneyAt McMaster University in Hamilton, Dr. Bernice Downey, the other Indigenous Early Career Women’s Heart and Brain Health Chair, is exploring the culture-related factors that have led to gaps in health promotion, diagnosis, treatment and research that impact Indigenous women. She is taking a deep look into how we can improve the training healthcare professionals receive to help them work with Indigenous women in a culturally safe way that fosters trusting relationships.

Over five years Dr. Downey and her team will tap into both Indigenous and Western knowledge to help Indigenous women to self-manage their heart disease and/or risk factors. They will also test a new model of care delivery to assess if it increases Indigenous women’s motivation and ability to better manage their health.

Photo: McMaster University

Dr. Husam Abdel-Qadir: The impact of breast cancer on women’s heart and brain health

Dr. Husam Abdel-QadirThere is a well established link between treatments for breast cancer and the onset of heart disease. This may show up as a weakened heart. Scientists also suspect treatments may predispose women to atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm condition that can lead to stroke. Breast cancer can also cause stress and anxiety, especially in women with specific life experiences, such as belonging to an ethnic minority, further increasing their risks for heart disease. 

In a unique project involving 200 women receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer, Dr. Husam Abdel-Qadir, the Early Career Women's Heart and Brain Health Chair at Toronto’s Women’s College Research Institute, is working to detect heart disease caused by chemotherapy at an earlier stage. His team will also examine how women’s unique life experiences may affect their heart health outcomes, and whether breast cancer patients whose heart health is compromised after chemotherapy have more difficulties with memory and concentration.

This study will provide us with important information to keep women’s hearts and brains healthy after chemotherapy for breast cancer. 

Dr. Kara Nerenberg: Reducing women’s risk after pregnancy

Dr. Kara NerenbergMany women experience a high blood pressure disorder during pregnancy, making them two to five times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke before age 40, and to die prematurely before 60. Yet half of Canadian doctors aren't aware of this elevated risk, and so neither are their patients. 

At the University of Calgary, Dr. Kara Nerenberg, the Mid-Career Women's Heart and Brain Health Chair, leads a research program that is exploring some big questions: How many women with such a disorder (known as HDP, or hypertensive disorder of pregnancy) go on to develop risk factors for heart disease and stroke? What's the best way to reach these women? What tools do doctors need to help these new moms prevent heart disease and stroke? 

As a starting point, Dr. Nerenberg will examine health databases of Alberta women to learn more about how often, when, why and where they see their doctors after having a baby. Her program will also work with clinics across Canada that are specialized for women after pregnancy, to develop and test tools that could help doctors provide enhanced care for women after pregnancy. 

Photo: Adrian Shellard

About the awards

Funding for these four Women’s Heart and Brain Health Chairs was made possible by:

  • Heart & Stroke 
  • Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR):
    • Institute of Indigenous Peoples Health;
    • Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health;
    • Institute of Gender and Health
  • Health Canada, through funds designated to Heart & Stroke to support targeted research on women’s heart and brain health and to promote collaboration between research institutions across the country.

The 2016 federal budget designated an investment of $5 million over five years for Heart & Stroke to support, with its partners, targeted research on women’s heart and brain health and to promote collaboration between research institutions across the country.

The mandate of each chair is to generate new knowledge that improves awareness, prevention and understanding of how biology and socio-cultural factors affect women’s heart and brain health. The mandate of the Indigenous chairs in particular will address barriers and external factors that can influence Indigenous women’s health in Canada.