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Colleen Norris

Spreading Our Wings

Putting the spotlight on mature women’s health research

Colleen Norris has dedicated her academic career to working in women’s health research and now, after her appointment in August 2022 as Cavarzan Chair in Mature Women’s Health Research, she has the opportunity to expand beyond her area of expertise — from women’s heart health to a broader spectrum of mature women’s health.

That’s a natural transition for Norris. She believes women’s heart health is the “canary in the coal mine” of women’s health research. “Research into women’s cardiovascular health is telling us a lot about women’s health in general and we need to pay attention to it,” she says.

“There’s more than biology going on when it comes to women’s health outcomes.”

Norris focuses on sex and gender factors that impact women’s heart disease, including under-diagnosis, treatment outcomes and health-related quality of life afterward. Her studies have found that even when women with heart disease are properly diagnosed, treated with the same medications as men and put through the same rehab programs, they tend to report a worse quality of life afterward, experiencing more physical limitations, chest pain and other health-related issues.

Women and men are different right down to the cellular level, so it’s no wonder diseases progress differently, says Norris, professor and clinician scientist in the Faculties of Nursing, Medicine & Dentistry and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.

In Canada, 65 per cent of those diagnosed with dementia over the age of 65 are women, as are 80 per cent of those living with diagnosed osteoporosis. And women are 50 per cent more likely than men to die within the year following a heart attack.

But she also points out that there’s more than biology going on when it comes to women’s health outcomes. Gender disparities and gender roles — such as how much time you spend doing housework, whether you are a child’s primary caregiver and whether you have emotional support at home — add up to extra stress that affects women disproportionately, contributing not just to mental health issues but also to cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.

In her Cavarzan Chair in Mature Women's Health Research role, Norris is particularly interested in mature women’s health research that includes the context of their stage in life. “Let’s start blending the life cycle of a mature woman — whether that is perimenopause, menopause or postmenopause — with all her other health concerns,” she says. “For too long, researchers and clinicians have ignored that connection.”

One of Norris’s goals is to push scientists to make it easier for women to participate in clinical trials, which still typically include far more men than women. Researchers often complain that it’s difficult to get women involved in clinical trials, says Norris. But they need to do more to make that happen, especially for older women who may not have support at home to allow them to participate.

Another project, well underway, is a sex and gender questionnaire that will be given to women coming to the Lois Hole Hospital for Women for any health concerns. The questionnaire, being developed with the help of a cohort of women in one of Norris’s research projects, asks about a range of sex and gender factors that could affect women’s health — everything from menstruation to pregnancy experiences, babies’ birthweight, child-rearing responsibilities, and stress levels at work and home.

Along with specific initiatives such as these, Norris is using her term as Cavarzan Chair in Mature Women's Health Resarch to promote interdisciplinary and collaborative women’s health research and be a mentor for junior researchers to develop their talent. She takes her role as ambassador and champion seriously, to link research with practice for the benefit of women.

“Let’s work together to move this whole science forward, to move women’s health into the spotlight it deserves.”

Colleen Norris’s research and the Cavarzan Chair in Mature Women’s Health Research are supported by the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.