Do Canadian women know enough about heart disease? Survey says no

WATCH: Lisa McDonnell, lead author and program manager at the Heart Institute, discusses the study which suggests that a majority of Canadian women don’t know about what causes the chronic condition

TORONTO — Can you name the risk factors for heart disease? A new study suggests that a majority of Canadian women don’t know about what causes the chronic condition, its symptoms and their own susceptibility to the disease.

In Canada, heart disease is a leading cause of death in both men and women. But when University of Ottawa Heart Institute scientists asked Canadian women what causes the disease, less than half were able to identify the major risk factors.

Just under half knew smoking was a risk factor, and less than one quarter named hypertension or high cholesterol as culprits. (Lack of exercise, excess weight, diabetes, excessive drinking and stress are also factors we’re in control of. Age, gender, family history and ethnicity are factors we can’t change.)

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The study’s based on the spring 2013 survey responses of 1,654 Canadian women aged 25 and over.

READ MORE: 5 lifestyle changes to improve your heart’s health

What’s troubling to the researchers is that women are often the gatekeepers of health information for the rest of their household.

“As 65 per cent of the women indicated that they had the greatest influence over their family’s health and identified themselves as the ‘heart keepers’ of their families’ heart health, ensuring that they have access to the right resources and appropriate treatment would have a positive impact on all Canadian families,” Lisa McDonnell, lead author and program manager at the Heart Institute said.

READ MORE: Heart attack survivors aren’t making lifestyle changes, report warns

They may be looking after their partners and kids, but the women studied weren’t aware of their risk of getting heart disease. Those who were at the highest risk didn’t realize that they were leading unhealthy lifestyles.

Eighty per cent of the women with little knowledge about heart disease thought that, for the most part, they were well informed.

Thirty-five per cent of women with cardiovascular disease saw their condition as “only an episode” that was treated. They even went back to their pre-diagnosis lifestyle — what the researchers call an “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon.

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READ MORE: Do heart attack survivors change their unhealthy ways? Study suggests patients don’t improve lifestyle

“Women are under-studied, under-diagnosed, and under-treated because of a lack of public and professional awareness of women’s coronary risk,” McDonnell said.

“The findings show that we absolutely need to increase awareness and knowledge and to correct misperceptions concerning the incidence, prevalence and significance of cardiovascular disease among women and health care providers,” she said.

Most of the women said they received their health information from their doctors, but only half said these physicians talked about prevention and lifestyle changes during visits.

READ MORE: What you should be eating to lower your blood pressure 

The Heart Institute is launching the country’s first Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre in the fall to help with diagnosis, treatment and ongoing care for women with heart disease.

McDonnell’s findings were published Monday in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology.

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