Life Health

Heart disease is the number one health threat to women

Donna J. MacArthur, Federated Women's Institutes of Canada

The hard facts are: There's a potential killer preying on unsuspecting women and the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada (FWIC) is on a campaign to expose the culprit. The predator is Heart Disease - the number one health threat to women in Canada today. Statistics Canada reports that more women die of cardiovascular disease than any other condition. The risk is made even greater by the fact that most women fail to see the connection between the identified risk factors of Heart Disease and their own personal risks of developing the often deadly illness.

Symptoms of a heart attack include: chest pain or discomfort; pain in the arm, neck, jaw, shoulder or back; nausea, indigestion or vomiting; sweating or cool, clammy skin; breathing difficulty, and anxiety. Some of these symptoms may be experienced up to a month before a heart attack actually occurs.

Arlene Brown, of Charlottetown, PEI, vividly recalls being in a state of denial when she had symptoms that led to a heart attack when she was 61.

"Over a period of time I'd experienced a shortness of breath, some persistent pains down my arm and a strange feeling in my wrist. I have asthma, so I attributed my breathing problem to that, and the pains weren't severe so I ignored them and they went away."

Brown was aware that there was a history of heart disease in her family, but she was busy working full-time and involved in her community, and in her own words, "just didn't expect anything to happen right away." But it did happen.

"One morning I had all the symptoms I'd had previously, as well as indigestion and heartburn. My husband took me to the hospital and after a series of tests I was told that I had several blockages in my arteries and my blood pressure was very high."

Brown had to be transported off-Island to a Halifax, NS, hospital where five stints were inserted into those damaged arteries, and now, eight years later, she is doing well. Although she has had to learn to pace herself, physically, and watch what she eats, she considers herself lucky.

"My advice is to be aware of the symptoms, and not to ignore them," she cautions.

FWIC's Triennium Project, "Hard Facts about Women's Heart Health" is a major, three-year long effort (2009-2012), to heighten the awareness of heart disease and strokes among its 13,000-plus membership across Canada, as well as to the general public.

Shirley Fraize, of Newfoundland, is project chairman with FWIC, and the initiator of the Triennium Heart Health Project.

"FWIC adopted the Project so Women's Institute (WI) members across Canada would promote the information in their respective home provinces, and encourage members and local people alike to recognize the risks of heart disease and adapt healthier lifestyles," Fraize says.

Each provincial WI organization is advancing the Project through a series of workshops and other activities in their area. Some provinces are offering "The Heart Truth," a PowerPoint presentation developed and shared by the Canadian Heart & Stroke Foundation.

The Women's Institutes have been providing a voice for all WI members across Canada for well over a century. Since the organization was founded by Adelaide Hoodless Hunter, of Ontario, its objectives have remained constant: to initiate national programs; to provide a medium of communication among all WI branches; to provide leadership in the promotion of agriculture and community living; and to develop responsible citizens through the study/awareness of issues of national/international relevance. The FWIC is currently comprised of 1000 branches across Canada.

The focus of WI has been to honor the past and move forward with the times. The current Triennium's theme, "Coast to Coast: WI - Alive and Well," is consistent with that focus.

"In conjunction with our Heart Health Project, FWIC has issued a challenge for all its members to, 'Walk across Canada with Us,'" Fraize says. Pedometers are available for purchase at each provincial office. Participants were asked to wear their pedometers and record the number of steps taken each day from January 1, 2011 through to Dec. 31, 2011.

"The intention of this challenge is to promote a healthy lifestyle within all WI membership branches and to accumulate enough steps to reach the destination of the FWIC National Convention, in Sidney, BC, in June, 2012."

Fraize says that getting fit is only one of the benefits of choosing a healthy lifestyle and regular physical activity.

"You will also lessen your chance of heart disease because reduced cholesterol reduces your heart's workload. Stress will be reduced, blood pressure lowered, bone loss prevented, and your general quality of life will be improved. This is good health sense I want to share with women everywhere."

An organization as enduring and inclusive as FWIC, which reaches out to so many rural women across the country, has built a legacy of comradery amongst its members.

"Every WI member is genuinely interested in the welfare and well-being of her family, community and the world at large," Fraize says. "When we gather for our national conference, in BC, next June, it will be interesting to find out how many collective steps have been accumulated through our Walk Across Canada effort. But it will be even more exciting to consider the number of women who will escape the grips of Heart Disease because of FWIC's Heart Health Project, simply because they now know the risks and how to protect themselves against it."