The Irish Heart Foundation’s ‘Farmers Have Hearts’ programme is in its second year of a four-year study being conducted by IT Carlow, aimed at finding ways to help farmers improve their heart health.

The study is following on from research commissioned by the Irish Heart Foundation in 2014 which found that 80% of farmers were at high risk of heart disease.

Marese Damery, health check manager, health promotion, Irish Heart Foundation, said that the study is building on work carried out over the last six years.

“We have been doing health checks at marts nationally since 2013, carried out by nurses around the country. So far we have reached 6,000 farmers in 54 marts in 24 counties in this HSE-supported initiative.

“An evaluation was carried out by IT Carlow in 2013/2014, examining farmers’ experiences of the health checks and whether they went to their GP or made lifestyle changes if they had the risk factors for heart disease and stroke,” Marese said.

Although 80% of farmers were found to have four or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease, when we went back to them 12 months later, only 32% had gone to their GP. There was huge concern around the need for farmers to engage with their GP.

“However, nearly half of those who did go to their GP had started to make lifestyle changes, improving their diet and physical activity level. A lot of farmers said they wouldn’t have had a health check otherwise and that they would go to their GP more regularly in the future,” Marese said.

This latest study started last year and is looking at ways to help farmers improve their heart health. It is being carried out by Teagasc PhD Walsh Fellow Diana Van Doorn at the centre for men’s health, IT Carlow. Glanbia, the HSE and the UCD School of Physiotherapy and Performance Science are also partners.

Health checks are being carried out on farmers in marts and co-ops. A total of 1,400 farmers took part in the first round and 800 farmers are taking part in the intervention study.

“We are hoping to encourage more farmers to have more regular health checks, to avail of GP services and to make lifestyle changes, to improve their heart health,” Marese said.

Certainly, we have found many farmers face a lot of difficulties such as isolation and being stretched for time which are barriers to engaging with health services. A lot don’t have the time to cook from scratch. They work hard and stress is a factor. Over the last 10 years they have faced a lot of issues including the recession and the uncertainty of Brexit.

“We are trying to support them to look after their heart health and they like to meet our nurses at the marts. The nurses also provide information for the farmers on local services available to them in their local areas such as local GP services, Slí na Sláinte walks and men’s sheds groups.

“The farmer feedback is that they wouldn’t have gone for health checks if we hadn’t offered them. The health checks are opportunistically available at the marts so that the farmers can fit the health checks into their day at the mart and there is generally great banter among the farmers. They encourage each other and it’s a great way of breaking down barriers,” said Marese.

“We don’t push change; we encourage it and help the farmers look at where they can make changes to their lifestyle to prevent their risk of heart disease and stroke. We advise them to do things like leave the quad and go for a walk, eat less processed foods or leave the salt off their meal. Small changes can make a big difference.”