Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 March 2018

Fears grow for health of 'high risk' farmers

Stark survey results prompt HSE action plan

Health scare: Maura Canning didn't associate high blood pressure with the farming way of life. Photo: Andrew Downes
Health scare: Maura Canning didn't associate high blood pressure with the farming way of life. Photo: Andrew Downes

Ken Whelan

The outdoor green image of the country's farms often meant it was viewed as a healthy job, but farm workers are more likely to suffer from heart-related illnesses than any other profession, according to health experts.

The traditional view of farming as a physical, healthy outdoor occupation has been changing in recent years, partly because much of the labour-intensive work has been replaced by modern farm machinery. However, another factor has been pinpointed with farmers often consuming a high-fat diet.

A recent Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) study, conducted with the Carlow Institute of Technology (CIT), found farmers are seven times more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases than other workers.

It showed almost half of Irish farmers have blood pressure, cholesterol and weight problems.

This survey, which covered over 1,000 farmers at marts in four counties, confirmed earlier HSE research carried out by Dr Brenda Smyth of the Department of Public Health.

It showed death rates among farm workers were substantially greater than mortality among salaried employees.

"The current lifestyle of farmers is simply not conducive in maintaining a good cardiovascular culture," Noel Richardson, a Carlow IT lecturer and HSE adviser on mens' health, told the Farming Independent.

Richardson believes there are various reasons for this turnabout in the perception of farming being a "healthy occupation".

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"The cardiovascular problems of farmers arise in various ways, not least because of their dietary habits which tends to be of the high-fat type. And the idea farming is a physical profession is clearly a thing of the past.

"With modern farming automation, tractors and farm equipment, farmers are spending their time sitting on seats rather than being on their feet doing manual work. The farms are just becoming bigger and more automated. And as anyone will tell you, there is a huge difference between driving today's tractors and the ones used in Ireland in the 70s and 80s," Richardson added.

The IHF and the HSE are planning to roll out the farmers' health check scheme at marts throughout the country, with the backing of the farm organisations.

"It's a fantastic way to reach farmers in their workplace and we hope to expand the health check idea to marts nationwide," the IHF's Marese Damery said.

"The HSE is committed to the idea and we are committed to operating the scheme, but it will now depend on Department of Health allocating the money to roll out the scheme."

The latest IHF survey was carried out at marts in counties Longford, Cavan, Cork and Mayo last year.

It showed almost half or 46pc of the farmers had high blood pressure and a similar number recorded raised cholesterol levels.

The body mass index showed a massive 86.4pc were overweight, with 35.6pc of these actually being classified as obese.

In waist circumference terms, the survey showed that 79.5pc of the participants were classified as "at risk" with waists of 37in-plus, with 37.8pc at "high risk" recording 40in-plus.

The survey also discovered that 35.5pc of participants reported they were not physically active for five days or more each week, while six out of 10 farmers experience stress at times with 16pc feeling the stress of running the business almost all of the time.

Some 17pc smoked while almost half of the respondents said they drank alcohol on a regular basis, with 27pc of this total saying they drank over 17 standard drinks per week.

'A blood pressure time bomb'

A "blood pressure time bomb" is how the nurse described Maura Canning when she rambled into an Irish Heart Foundation health-check stand at a Women In Agriculture conference in Killarney 18 months ago.

The 44-year-old chair of the IFA's family and human affairs committee was totally unaware of any health problems. Yet she soon grasped the enormity of the situation when she had to leave a wedding celebration just a few weeks later to go to a hospital A&E.

Maura, who runs a sheep and suckler farming enterprise with her husband Seamus outside Loughrea in Galway, explains she never thought she would have a problem with her blood pressure when she underwent the health check.

"I had been working on getting everything right for the conference the night before and as the Irish Heart Foundation were carrying out their farmers' health check survey, they were invited guests.

"I went in to get a health check and I was told I had high blood pressure and was told to go immediately to my doctor," said Maura, who is now on medication for it.

"I left it for a few days and when I went to the doctor I was told my blood pressure was up and down.


"I had noticed I was kept awake at night by the blood flow in my head and I had been getting tired during the daytime and was taking a half hour's nap in the afternoons, but I put this down to work on the farm and stress of the work, and travel associated with my work with the IFA.

"A few weeks later, I was attending a wedding and I was checking my blood pressure with the monitor I got after the checkout at the Killarney conference and it was 226 over 125 instead of 120 over 80.

"If the monitor registers 199 you are in trouble so I went immediately to Portiuncula Hospital and remained there for a week.

"There's no doubt about it - I was a blood pressure time bomb and I didn't even know it."

She is also on new eating, fitness and sleeping regimes. Dancing is her preferred exercise routine, while she now makes sure she gets eight hours sleep and eats three meals a day.

"I was amazed when they told me I had blood pressure at that conference in Killarney. You don't associate such a problem with the farming way of life but now I would urge farmers and their families to avail of these health checks," she said.

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