The folklore of rural Ireland is filled with stories of people who “were never sick a day in their life” suffering sudden and sometimes fatal heart attacks.
But the reality, of course, is that there is always a medical reason for acute cardiac events which can cause grief and distress in families and communities.
A recent major study revealed the startling statistic that 74% of male farmers have four or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
This means they are three times more likely to have a stroke or heart attack compared to those with fewer risk factors.
Some 75% of all farmers participating in the research were advised to visit their general practitioner to get further support and advice.
Diana van Doorn, a PhD Walsh Scholar at Teagasc and the National Centre for Men’s Health at IT Carlow, the study’s lead author, said whilst the top line figures paint a worrying picture there are positives.
A majority of farmers reported having visited their GP in the past year while fewer smoke or drink compared to the general population.
A total of 868 male farmers underwent health checks in marts and Glanbia Ireland Agribusiness branches across the south, east and midlands as part of the study.
Dr David Meredith, Teagasc, said internationally there are few studies of this scale. The participation of so many farmers provided 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, said this level of research is necessary to undertake robust scientific analysis, identify what works and develop evidence-based recommendations and solutions.
Abdominal weight is a major risk factor for heart disease, according to Marese Damery, Health Check Manager/Health Promotion, Irish Heart Foundation.
“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.
“It 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,” she said, Teagasc Director, Professor Gerry Boyle said 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.
Pointing out that Teagasc, working with partners in this area, have produced numerous reports, he urged farmers or their families to use these and local services when they need to do so.
Seán Molloy, chief agribusiness growth officer at Glanbia Ireland, said it aims to make a difference in the communities in which it operates.
It was 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, he said.
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.
The report says this indicates either a lack of awareness, or an incomplete understanding of cardiovascular disease or the risks associated with it.
Declan Doyle, vice-president for Development and Research at Carlow Institute of Technology, said 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,” he said.
In relation to eating habits, most of the farmers (72.1%) reported consuming salty and/or sugary snacks daily, which is higher than the national average of 34% (not gender specific).
Fergal Fox, Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Communications, HSE Health and Wellbeing, said from a Healthy Ireland perspective – it’s great to see so many partners supporting men’s health through this initiative.
The study findings reinforce the need for gender-sensitive, community outreach programmes that can successfully engage more ‘at risk’ groups of men, he said, Dr John McNamara, Health and Safety Specialist, Teagasc, said the research results will yield valuable knowledge on ways to promote cardiovascular health among farmers.
Urging farmers to give 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.” Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Authority website points out that the principal causes of ill health among farmers were associated with manual handling, lung problems, infections and noise. Some 50% of farmers with occupational ill health suffer from chronic back pain.