Manitoba researchers look to predict heart disease risk through everyday tasks

Standing, sitting, walking – all mundane, everyday tasks most people do without thinking, but a research group suspects these tasks have the potential to predict heart disease risk, especially in women.

Todd Duhamel, a professor at the University of Manitoba and a principal investigator St. Boniface Research Centre, is leading a study called WARM Hearts.

"What we're interested in doing is helping women to find out more about their cardiovascular health and maybe their disease risk by using a bunch of new, innovative strategies that are low cost," said Duhamel.

Participants of the study are all women 55 years and older, a group Duhamel said is typically not aware they are at the same risk for heart attack or stroke as men.

A report done by the Heart and Stroke Foundation in 2018 found two thirds of heart disease research focuses on men, however Canadian women are five times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer.

"What if I told you how fast you walk a five-metre length was actually equally predictive as giving a blood sample? Our research has shown, in some of our cardiac surgery work that we've done, that it might be,” said Duhamel.

WARM Hearts participants are put through a series of tasks starting with a blood pressure cuff. After that their grip, upper and lower mobility is tested, as well as strength and reflexes.

These movements, along with some blood and stool samples allow the team to generate a heart health report card for each woman who takes part.

"We send them information about traditional, historical kind of risk factors like Framingham disease scores, blood pressure scores, cholesterol scores,” said Duhamel. “But then we also give them information on these novel screening programs that we're interested in."

In some cases, abnormalities may be noticed during the current part of the study and researchers will advise the person to see their doctor.

That is exactly what happened to Sheila Mitchell-Dueck.

"I thought I was helping somebody's study, but in the end they actually helped me,” she told CTV News.

She said she always had her eye on her fluctuating blood pressure, but never thought it was a major issue.

"I tracked it myself, every time I saw my doctor I said, 'You know, I’ll just monitor it myself. I’ll make sure I’ll get more sleep, I’ll exercise more, that sort of thing,'" she said.

Right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she participated in WARM Hearts and was referred to see a cardiologist based on the results of a six-minute walking test she said.

After a few tests at the doctors’ office, a clinical diagnosis was made.

“Right ventricular hypertrophy,” said Mitchell-Dueck. “Which means my heart is pumping harder because I have undiagnosed hypertension."

She's now on medication and said if it wasn't for WARM hearts, she'd still be doing the same old things not knowing her heart wasn't as healthy as she thought it was.

"We minimize our health issues as women, we keep soldiering on. We got to do, do, do and we don't worry about what’s happening and yet it’s important."

Duhamel said the methods used in the WARM Hearts study have the potential to be used in doctors’ offices some day to predict heart disease risk.

He said the next phase of the research will be tracking the 1,000 participants for five years using their Manitoba health record. He said they will be able to see which participants had a heart attack or stroke and if any were put on heart-related medication.

Using that information, Duhamel said researchers can look back as see which tests done were the best predictors of risk.

Before the pandemic interest in WARM Hearts was high. Duhamel said they had about 500 women on a wait list.

Now that in-person sessions can happen again the research team is looking to recruit the last few hundred women they need to reach 1,000 participants.

More information on the WARM Hearts Study can be found here.