A study which reveals that 80 per cent of farmers have four or more risk factors for heart disease and stroke - the leading cause of death in Ireland - has been described as "very worrying" by a local farmers' representative.
Pat Murphy, the chairman of the Galway branch of the Irish Farmers Association, says due to the seriousness of the survey's findings his organisation will consider providing health screening for farmers at marts in the county.
The Irish Heart Foundation (IHF ) currently carries out free one-to-one health checks for farmers at marts in other parts of the country but has not done so so far in Galway. It has no immediate plans to introduce its screening initiative here. The free screening which is carried out by its nurses measures blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, body mass index, and waist circumference.
The study, which was carried out by the IHF, indicated that farmers are seven times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than people in other occupations. Their risk factors for the condition include family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight. As a result of the health checks eight out of 10 farmers were advised to see their GP for follow-up care.
Findings from the Farmers Have Hearts initiative revealed that the most prevalent risk identified was being overweight or obesity at 86 per cent while 82 per cent had a family history of heart disease and stroke, a key risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD ).
Mr Murphy, a dairy farmer from Ardrahan, says while he is deeply concerned about the study's findings he is not at all surprised by the revelations.
He believes the high level of CVD risk factors among farmers is related to various issues including, the age profile of farmers, a 24/7 work commitment, mounting stress due to particular farming practices, succession issues, dwindling incomes, insufficient exercise as farming becomes more technology driven, and the reluctance of male farmers to visit their GPs. Family history and the perception among farmers that their active and outdoor occupation is healthy, are other contributory factors, he says.
"About 60 to 70 per cent of Galway's 13,000 farmers - more than 90 per cent of whom are men - are aged 55 to 70 years," outlines Mr Murphy. "This is the case all over the country. Farming can be a lonely and stressful life as well, especially around the calving and lambing time of year. If you are up all night and everything is not going right then you will be worried.
"The system of compact calving, whereby farmers try to calve all their cows in a six week period from the middle of January onwards, can put a lot of pressure on them as well. The weather is bad and farmers are often up all night if lots of cows are calving together. My advice would be to spread out the work - have more cows calving later - give yourself an odd night off, get in calving cameras (lots of farmers have then, they are not expensive - a couple of hundreds euros - and they are a valuable tool ). Even the act of pulling a calf puts you under pressure. You are on your own at two or three in the morning. I know farmers this April who didn't see the bed."
The fact that many farmers are earning little from the land is another stressor, he maintains. "Eight out of 10 farmers in Galway are cattle and sheep farmers. The average annual income of a cattle farmer is €9,500 while a sheep farmer earns about €13,500. In a good year dairy farmers would make up to €62,000 but the costs are very high in dairying. The only way many farmers survive is by keeping costs to a minimum. Some younger farmers have part-time jobs while a small number get Farm Assist, the income support scheme for farmers, but it is getting harder to get it. "
It is important that farmers over 40 years old visit their GP once a year, says Mr Murphy."Get a full check-up. You owe it to your family and your business. Nowadays on farms we tend to do less walking. People are under pressure and are rushing here and there. But even if farmers just walked their fields for half an hour a day it would help. Just say I won't bring the Jeep, the quad or the tractor on one trip a day. If they did, their hearts would thank them for it."
Concerns over family succession rights are putting farmers under pressure too, according to the farmers' representative. "Farmers are worrying if their son or daughter's relationship is stable. There is a real fear, for a number of reasons, of a marriage failing, one of which is the fear the farm will be split up. With the older generation this is a huge thing. They worked hard for their land and fear it will be thrown away."
While there were fortunately no deaths on Galway farms this year farm safety continues to be a major concern, he says. "There is huge stress if someone is injured or killed in an accident. Farm safety is always a big worry."
The Irish Heart Foundation study revealed that the majority (82.1 per cent ) of farmers reported a family history of heart disease and/or stroke or diabetes.
Combining measured (eg, blood pressure,blood glucose, cholesterol and Body Mass Index and waist measurement ) and self-reported health outcomes (eg, smoking, physical inactivity, stress ) the majority (80.7 per cent ) of farmers had four or more CVD risk factors.
Almost half of farmers (46 per cent ) had high blood pressure and had raised total cholesterol levels. The vast majority of participating farmers were found to be overweight or obese.
Based on BMI measurements, 86.4 per cent of farmers were classified as overweight and of those, 35.6 per cent were classified as obese. Similarly, for waist circumference, 79.5 per cent were classified as ‘at risk’ (over 37 inches ) and of those, 37.8 per cent were classified as ‘at high risk’ (over 40 inches ).
In relation to self-reported health measures, 0ne third of participating farmers (35.5 per cent ) reported not being physically active for five days or more a week. The majority (64.2 per cent ) reported experiencing stress "sometimes" and, of those, 16.2 per cent reported feeling stressed "most of the time".
A minority of farmers (17.8 per cent ) reported smoking. Almost half of farmers reported that they drank alcohol on a regular basis and 25 per cent of "drinkers" reported drinking more than 17 standard drinks a week. The majority of farmers (79.2 per cent ) were advised to visit their GP by the IHF nurse on the basis of the heart health check results. After 12 weeks, almost a third followed through and visited their GP. Nearly 42 per cent said they would not have had a health check if not for the IHF's "Farmers Have Hearts programme".