Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre Launched

December 10, 2014

Heart disease is different for women, and that difference is borne out in almost every aspect of the disease: the factors that lead to it, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and even risk of death. In fact, heart disease kills more women worldwide than all cancers, tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria combined, but a recent national survey highlighted the fact that current awareness efforts about the risks and dangers of heart disease are not reaching most Canadian women.

Officially launched in November, the Canadian Women's Heart Health Centre (CWHHC) aims to change this state of affairs by "starting the conversation about women and heart disease." This first-of-its-kind centre in Canada will focus on improving care, raising awareness and deepening knowledge of heart disease in women. Research will specifically target women and draw on the work of world-renowned experts.

"The landscape of women and heart disease has evolved greatly over the years, but efforts still need to be made in addressing the lack of public and professional awareness of women's coronary risk," said cardiologist Michele Turek, MD, medical advisor for the CWHHC. "We must address this important challenge and correct misperceptions concerning the incidence, prevalence and significance of cardiovascular disease."

Much of what we know about the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease is based on research in men. But while cardiovascular disease is on the decline among men, it is rising among women and is the number one killer of women older than 35 years of age.

"Heart disease is the greatest health risk for women, but it's not perceived that way," explained Lisa McDonnell, Program Manager for the Centre. "In 2012, we began having discussions at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute around the opportunity to have a greater impact on women's heart health. It became very apparent that the risk of heart disease in women remains underestimated despite the fact that one in three women will have heart disease in her lifetime, costing the Canadian economy billions of dollars each year."

"Knowing all of this," she continued, "we were surprised to realize that no centre spanning care, awareness and research existed, and we viewed this gap as an opportunity to start playing a more prominent role. Our goal is to develop exemplary models of excellence in cardiovascular prevention and management for women and to scale these activities regionally and then provincially, until we reach a national scope."

The Centre began introducing programs and pilot initiatives in 2013 and will expand partnerships with health care providers and primary care practitioners to offer practical programs, including:

  • CardioPrevent®, a screening and counselling program, is designed to reach people who do not yet have cardiovascular disease but are at higher risk due to genetic or lifestyle factors.
  • Virtual Care Program, an online cardiovascular health management system, provides strategies and resources for the control and management of heart disease risk factors for women at risk and women with established heart disease.
  • Women@Heart, a peer support program for women with heart disease, led by women who have successfully recovered, offers a caring environment for women to learn from one another and provides them with access to emotional and educational support.
  • Post-Pregnancy Risk Program offers a unique opportunity to identify new mothers who are at increased risk for future cardiovascular disease as a result of pre-eclampsia during their pregnancies.

Three groups of women will be the target of CWHHC efforts: women with heart disease, those who are at moderate to high risk of developing the disease and women who are responsible for the heart health of their families. The Centre refers to this last group as "heart keepers" because the primary woman in a family unit holds up to 65 per cent of the influence on the heart health choices and behaviours of her family members.

"Through our work, we hope to accomplish many things," said McDonnell. "We want to increase awareness and correct misperceptions. We want to support health care providers with preventive care models and engage them and women in general with improved access to risk screening and self-management tools. We hope to develop a network of leaders and knowledge users to help disseminate information, and we expect to contribute new knowledge through women-centred research."

"Heart Disease Isn't Just for Men, After All," read the headline of André Picard's recent coverage in the Globe and Mail—a statement with which CWHHC's staff would agree.

As Dr. Turek said at the crowded launch event, "Because of the heightened risk for death and poorer quality of life once heart disease is manifest in women, we must take advantage of and promote novel and innovative ways to prevent and manage heart disease, such as the multifaceted approach that will be offered by the Canadian Women's Heart Health Centre at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute."