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Dr. Heather Foulds (PhD) Usask College of Kinesiology

New USask research chair probes heart and stroke prevention among Indigenous women

University of Saskatchewan researcher Dr. Heather Foulds (PhD) has been named Indigenous Early Career Women’s Heart and Brain Chair, with $730,000 over five years to study the role of social and cultural factors in heart disease and stroke.

The Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), USask, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation have jointly committed the funding for the new research chair which aims is to design targeted and effective ways to detect, prevent and treat heart and blood vessel diseases in Indigenous women.

“This award and the resulting research will further the understanding of cardiovascular disease progression among Indigenous women and translate into innovative health practices tailored to Indigenous peoples,” said Dr. Chad London (PhD), USask dean of the College of Kinesiology. “It will provide kinesiology students and faculty with meaningful learning and community engagement opportunities.”

Research shows the death and illness rate of Indigenous people from heart disease and stroke is 2.5 times greater than for non-Indigenous people in Canada. Especially concerning is the lack of awareness and recognition of cardiovascular problems among indigenous women, delaying their diagnosis and treatment, Foulds said.

“We know that social determinants of health are risk factors for heart disease, but these haven’t really been highlighted. And culture also has been ignored as a component,” said Foulds, an assistant professor of kinesiology. “As a Métis woman, I espouse the holistic approach to health described by many First Nations and shown on the medicine wheel—the connection of physical, spiritual, cultural, and mental health.”

She said that while physical factors such as cholesterol, blood sugar and obesity account for part of the risk profile for heart disease and stroke, social factors such as community and family support, and cultural identity deserve more prominence because they can play an important preventive role.

"For decades, women have been under-represented in heart and stroke research, and the tragic result is that we've lost too many women from these diseases,” said Allison Kessler, Heart & Stroke CEO in  Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

“We are so pleased to work with the Government of Canada and the University of Saskatchewan to support leading-edge research in our province, in particular with this special focus on the health of Indigenous women, who face unique challenges. The work that Dr. Foulds is doing is an important step towards turning the tide on the heart and brain health of all Canadian women."

Foulds’ research program includes several complementary studies over the next five years that will be carried out in collaboration with members of the growing USask Indigenous community of about 3,000 self-identified Indigenous students and more than 200 Indigenous staff and faculty. The research will incorporate both Indigenous and western methodologies.

  • Story collection will involve three groups of 20 adults of all genders engaging in photovoice and group conversational interviews led by an Elder to share thoughts and stories about social and cultural factors they feel influence their health.
  • Risk assessment will be done by recruiting, testing and collecting data on 200 women, and evaluating social and cultural factors that modify physical and mental contributors to heart disease. The assessments will include blood tests, fitness tests, and body measurements, and interviewer-administered questionnaires.
  • The gender impact study will measure the role gender plays in the social and cultural influences that affect mental and physical determinants of cardiovascular disease.

Findings of the above studies will be presented to three groups of 20 women, who will study the results and then participate in group conversational interviews with an Elder. The goal is to identify potential intervention strategies that incorporate social and cultural factors important to Indigenous women’s heart health.

“I hope to broaden our understanding of Indigenous women’s experience of heart disease to reflect the broader, more holistic idea of health, and engage health professionals and community stakeholders to develop ways to identify and prevent heart disease and stroke among Indigenous women,” Foulds said.

The new chair is one of four awarded nationally by the CIHR in partnership with Heart & Stroke, an investment of more than $3 million over five years.

"I'm proud of the partnership between the Government of Canada, the University of Saskatchewan, and Heart & Stroke, which will enable Dr. Foulds and her team to continue their outstanding contributions that improve our understanding of health inequities, and will lead to knowledge that will ultimately benefit all Canadians," said Canada's Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor.

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