Dr. Susan Howlett

Dr. Susan Howlett

Dr. Susan Howlett

Dalhousie Medical School, Cardiovascular

Frailty, age, sex and hearts: Dr. Susan Howlett seeks to keep men's and women's hearts strong as they age

From her ongoing work to understand how men's and women's hearts function differently as they age, Dr. Susan Howlett has expanded her research to explore how frailty affects heart function and overall health. Her goal is to find ways of slowing down the steady accumulation of health deficits that define frailty.

"Frailty is the condition of vulnerability that develops as a person accumulates more and more health problems," explains Dr. Howlett, a world-renowned heart researcher and professor at Dalhousie Medical School who collaborates with Dr. Robert Rose and Dr. Kenneth Rockwood, among many others. "As colleagues at Dalhousie have proven, it's the sheer quantity of problems, rather than the problems themselves, that makes a person frail. At a certain tipping point, the addition of just one more problem spells catastrophe."

Paradoxically, while women have more health deficits than men at any given age, they live longer. Dr. Howlett wants to know how women withstand their burden of health deficits for longer, and find strategies for helping both men and women stay stronger and healthier as they age. She has developed unique methods for assessing frailty in pre-clinical models, which she is using in her work to shed light on the biological mechanisms of frailty and to test potential protective agents.

"We found lower frailty scores in studies testing the effects of resveratrol, an anti-oxidant found in red wine, for example," says Dr. Howlett, who has also pioneered the use of bloodwork in assessing frailty. "Anti-inflammatory agents, hormone therapies and several other approaches may also help offset frailty."

As Dr. Howlett notes, not all people with heart disease are necessarily frail, but heart disease contributes to frailty. "in heart diseases, people are tired and short of breath and they can't exercise vigorously enough to protect their heart and maintain their health," she explains. "It's a vicious cycle we want to help stop."

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