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Heart health is a women’s issue, with Indigenous women at greater risk: improve yours by taking FNHA’s heart health challenge

​​​​​A Message from Dr. Unjali Malhotra, FNHA Medical Officer, Women's Health


Whereas heart conditions are well known to affect men, new research is finding that women are just as impacted, and that there is a critical need for us to understand women's heart health risks and symptoms.

Although 80% of premature heart disease and stroke is preventable, heart disease is the leading cause of premature death for women in Canada and the second-leading cause of death in Canada for all people.1 The good news is that there are many actions you can take to support the healthy functioning of your heart. Take our Heart Health Challenge this month and you could win a prize in addition to improving your heart health!

What is heart disease?

The Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada defines heart disease as "a group of conditions that affect the structure and functions of the heart and has many root causes." Maintaining a healthy lifestyle (healthy eating, physical activity, avoiding tobacco misuse) is a key part of preventing these conditions. For more information, see


Why is heart health a growing concern for Indigenous women?

The rate of heart disease in Indigenous women is rising.2​ According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation's just-released report on women's heart health, heart disease is responsible for significantly more deaths in Indigenous women compared to non-Indigenous women. What's more, Indigenous women have been shown to die from heart disease at a younger age compared to non-Indigenous women.

This gap and other unacceptable health gaps are very complex to understand, but the root causes include things like limited access to health care. Poor heart health can also be related to social determinants of health (like poverty and poor nutrition), and chronic diseases like diabetes. Some women may seek health care services later than they should because of negative experiences with systemic racism and other health inequities that unfortunately still exist within the health care system.

As the Heart & Stroke Foundation's report notes, "Generational trauma and high-stress environments created by the impacts of historical policies have resulted in a disparate burden of risk factors and heart disease and stroke in Indigenous women. They are further affected by the high rate of inequities and by systemic racism."

Despite these or other barriers you may be experiencing, there are many things you can do to support your heart health. Please read on to find out what they are.


What are the risk factors for heart disease?

For women specifically, there are risk factors that cannot be changed like age, menopause and family history.

Some other risk factors CAN be worked on and positively impacted. For example, lifestyle changes like eating healthier foods, taking steps to prevent or manage diabetes and not smoking are all positive factors that offset many heart disease risk factors.


What are the symptoms of heart disease? 

There may be no symptoms, or there could be one or a combination of many symptoms, like chest pain / pressure / tightness (radiating to the jaw, arm or abdomen), fatigue, shortness of breath, anxiety, paleness, weakness, nausea / vomiting, heartburn, sweating, or lightheadedness. Symptoms may be triggered by resting, participating in an activity, or being exposed to stress.3 Unexplained swelling of the feet and other extremities can also be a sign that you need to see your doctor.


What can I do to reduce the risk of heart disease?4

There are many things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease and promote heart health in your family and community.

• It is important to tell your health care provider if you have symptoms.

• It is important to have a discussion with your health care provider about your personal heart health risk.

• Work together as a community to find ways to gather food and cook nutritious meals together; this is a wonderful way to build connections, which has the added benefit of easing stress and depression! If possible, work with your community to grow a garden of vegetables and traditional foods!

• Enjoy family meals together where possible; include more vegetables and real / fresh / traditional foods as opposed to processed / packaged foods. Watch the portions you eat as well!

• Walk more! Especially with others, and always in a safe place. Exercise is good for the soul, mind and body—including your heart.

• Work with family, friends and community to quit smoking! Make it a team effort!

• Again, connect and engage with others! Seek out and join a talking circle, friendship centre, community centre, crafts group —anything that is enjoyable, healing, safe and stress-reducing.


Please put aside some time this month for your heart health and wellness! We encourage you to talk to your health care provider and to try some of the heart-healthy tips above and at -- you could be one of five winners of a $100 SportChek certificate if you enter the challenge by February 28 at 5:00 p.m.

In wellness,

Dr. Unjali Malhotra


[1] Statistics Canada. Table 102-0561 - Leading causes of death, total population, by age

552 group and sex, Canada, annual, CANSIM (database). Available at:


554 =&stByVal=1&p1=1&p2=37&tabMode=dataTable&csid=. Accessed on: September 14,

555 2017.

[2] Reading J. Confronting the growing crisis of cardiovascular disease and heart health

567 among Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Can J Cardiol. 2015;31:1077-1080.

[3] Heart disease in women: understand symptoms and risk factors. Accessed online at on Jan 23, 2018.

[4​] Ziabakhsh S, Pederson A, Prodan-Bhalla N, Middagh D, Jinkerson-Brass S. Women740

centered and culturally responsive heart health promotion among Indigenous women in

741 Canada. Health Promot Pract. 2016;17:814-826.

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