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 why women are more likely than men to develop inflammation, frailty and a certain kind of heart failure. Her goal is to find ways of slowing down the damage that leads to heart disease and frailty for women and men alike.

“In our lab research, we have found that females are more frail than males at any given age,” notes Dr. Howlett, a world-renowned heart researcher and pharmacology professor at Dalhousie Medical School, adding that frailty is a state of vulnerability that develops as a person accumulates more and more health problems over time. “Frailty is an important risk factor for heart disease and heart failure.”

Dr. Howlett and her team have found that low levels or a total lack of testosterone are related to heart failure. Now they are exploring the effects of low estrogen on heart function as well. “We need to understand how changing levels of key hormones are affecting the heart as people age,” she says. “It would be a major advance if we could identify the ideal levels and ratios of hormones required to maintain heart cell function into later life.”

At the same time, Dr. Howlett wants to know if reducing frailty—through exercise and blood pressure medication—can also reduce the incidence of heart disease and heart failure. “In the lab, we have found that exercise alone can stop frailty scores from rising,” she says. “Now we will see if adding ACE inhibitors to exercise can actually reverse the changes in the heart that come with frailty.”

As Dr. Howlett notes, not all people with heart disease are necessarily frail, but heart disease contributes to frailty. “In heart disease, people are tired and short of breath and they can’t exercise vigourously 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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