Messages from the heart

Tanya BerryHeart disease is the number one cause of death in Canada for women over the age of 55, and women are more likely to die from heart disease than from any other disease.

Yet, nearly triple the number of women see breast cancer as the greatest health problem when in reality, heart disease and stroke kills seven times as many women.

Tanya Berry, whose research examines automatic reactions to health-promotion messages, wasn’t surprised by this disconnect.

Her previous research project examining media coverage of breast cancer and heart disease found women were more scared of breast cancer and felt that they had a fair amount of control over heart disease.

“In an increasingly media-centric society, health messages play an important role in people’s attitudes and perceptions of their own health,” says Berry, a WCHRI member and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion.

Berry dug deeper and examined the role messages about heart disease from organizations like the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada have on women’s perceptions and attitudes about their own health.

“Time and money are spent by organizations to create messages that try to change attitudes and behaviours about heart disease, and it’s important to evaluate these messages and find ways to improve them,” says Berry.

The study saw women with and without heart disease comment on messaging targeting lifestyle behaviours.

“We wanted to know what women think about the messages on physical activity, dietary behaviours and stress—some of the major risk factors for heart disease,” says Berry.

Most of the women said that the information in the messaging, like eat more fruit and vegetables or increase physical activity, wasn’t anything new.

Berry and her collaborators then followed up with an experimental study that collected the women’s automatic reactions to the messages.

“When we make decisions we use two different systems of thinking,” says Berry. “The first is our ‘gut-feeling’ which is automatic and emotional; the second is more deliberate and conscious. When you’re shown information you can automatically attend to it, so it’s of interest—you’re attracted to it. But if you feel threatened, you can automatically direct attention away to attempt to deal with that stress.”

“People’s emotional reactions often drives behaviour; it’s human nature,” says Berry. “So if someone has a negative emotional reaction to information about heart disease, they are not going to think about it anymore.”

Berry believes effective messaging needs to create a positive emotional reaction.

“What can we do when we create messaging that makes women feel good, rather than bad, about themselves,” says Berry. “That’s my goal, to help them feel more empowered about their health.”

Based on the findings from this study, Berry and her team received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to reconceptualize public health messages used to promote heart healthy behaviours in women.

Tanya Berry’s Innovation grant was funded by supporters of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

Lois Hole Hospital for Women

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