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‘Farmers Have Hearts’ Cardiovascular Health Programme - Major Study indicates Farmers at high risk of Cardiovascular Disease

A major study of farmer’s health is being published today, Thursday 18 June, as part of Men’s Health Week. The research found that 74% of male farmers have four, or more, risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

This means they are three times more likely to have an acute cardiac event (stroke or heart attack) compared to those with fewer risk factors. 75% of all farmers participating in the research were advised to visit their GP to get further support and advice. 

The lead author of the study, Diana van Doorn, a PhD Walsh Scholar at Teagasc and the National Centre for Men’s Health at IT Carlow, said that whilst the top line figures paint a worrying picture there are positives. We found that the majority of farmers reported having visited their GP in the past year, fewer farmers smoke or drink compared to the general population and farmers, by virtue of their occupation, get a lot of physical activity. There are however areas of concern identified by the study.”

These findings come from a study involving Teagasc, the National Centre for Men’s Health (NCMH) at IT Carlow, the Irish Heart Foundation, Glanbia Ireland, the HSE and UCD College of Health and Agricultural Sciences that saw 868 male farmers undergo health checks in marts and Glanbia Ireland Agribusiness branches across the south, east and midlands. Dr David Meredith, Teagasc, highlighted that, internationally, there are few studies of this scale. “With over 800 farmers participating in the health checks and the trial phase, this gives us insights not only into the health of farmers in general but also how demographic and social characteristics influence health.” Professor Catherine Blake, UCD College of Health and Agricultural Sciences stressed that: “This level of research is necessary to undertake robust scientific analysis, identify what works and develop evidence based recommendations and solutions.”

A number of the findings are of particular concern. Results show that the majority of farmers (85.9%) are living with either overweight or obesity. This is substantially higher than the national average for Irish men (68%).  Four in five (80.5%) farmers were classified as having an ‘at risk’ waist circumference of ≥94 cm (37 inches). Abdominal weight is a major risk factor for heart disease. Marese Damery, Health Check Manager/Health Promotion, Irish Heart Foundation said: “We have seen already through the Covid-19 crisis that one out of every two patients presenting to intensive care units have serious heart conditions with more men than women becoming critically ill. This research has shown that farmers have multiple heart and stroke risk factors and really highlights the importance of providing farmers and men in general with local access to health checks and interventions programmes. We hope that by continuing to work in collaboration, and leading the health checks, we can do this.”

Welcoming the publication of the report Teagasc Director, Professor Gerry Boyle stated: “One of the striking results is that one in three farmers (34.9%) scored ‘poor’ or ‘below average’ on a self-administered short well-being measurement scale. Teagasc, working with partners in this area, have produced a number of reports and I would ask farmers or their families to use these and local services when they need to.” Commenting on the results of the study, Seán Molloy, Chief Agribusiness Growth Officer at Glanbia Ireland, said: “Our business aims to make a difference in the communities in which we operate, so we were pleased to support this programme which has had an important role to play in raising awareness of health and physical well-being issues amongst our farming community.”

Other findings from the study indicate that farmers utilise GP services in response to ill-health rather than to prevent risk factors for disease. Of those farmers not already prescribed medication for blood pressure (n=585), cholesterol (n=588) and/or blood glucose (n=588), 43.8% had high blood pressure, 62.6% raised total cholesterol and 29.4% elevated blood glucose. This indicates either a lack of awareness, or an incomplete understanding of CVD, or the risks associated with it. Commenting on this, Vice-President for Development and Research at Institute of Technology Carlow, Declan Doyle noted: “The findings underline the importance of working in partnership to engage and support farmers to take increased responsibility for their own health. The success of this novel and innovative approach in engaging a so-called 'hard to reach' group, can serve as an important template for engaging other groups of men in other workplace settings.”

In relation to eating habits, the majority of farmers (72.1%) reported consuming salty and/or sugary snacks on a daily basis which is higher than the national average of 34% (not gender specific). One in five farmers (21.9%) reported consuming deep fried food three, or more times a week, and most (79.3%) reported not meeting the recommended daily intake of 5 or more portions of fruit and vegetables. This is higher than 70% of the national population of Irish males. Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Communications, HSE Health and Wellbeing, Fergal Fox stated “From a Healthy Ireland perspective – it’s great to see so many partners supporting men’s health through this initiative. The timing of this launch is particularly fitting as this is Men’s Health Week and the study findings reinforce the need for gender-sensitive, community outreach programmes that can successfully engage more ‘at risk’ groups of men.

The baseline data collected as part of this study is being analysed to identify the best ways of supporting farmers adopt and maintain healthier lifestyles. Dr John McNamara, Teagasc Health and Safety Specialist, stated that the results of this research will yield valuable knowledge on ways to promote cardiovascular health among farmers’ he appealed to farmers to give cardiovascular disease prevention immediate attention. He said: “Don’t put off going to the doctor or taking the first steps to a healthier lifestyle. Do it today.”

Key preventative approaches are available from the HSE (https://www.hse.ie/eng/health/az/c/cardiovascular-disease/) and the Irish Heart Foundation website (www.irishheart.ie). 

Farmers Have Hearts Cardiovascular Health Programme - Detailed and Baseline Reports are available to download here Farmers Have Hearts: Cardiovascular Health Programme 

Authors:   Diana van Doorn, Dr Noel Richardson, Dr David Meredith, Dr John McNamara, Dr Aoife Osborne, Dr Catherine Blake. June 2020.