Job Stress May Raise Women's Heart Attack Risk

Study: High Levels of Job Stress May Increase Women's Risk of Heart Attack by 90%

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 14, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 15, 2010 (Chicago) -- Stressed out on the job? Try to relax. Women who report having high levels of job stress appear to be at 90% increased risk of having a heart attack, compared with women who report less stress at work.

So say researchers who followed more than 17,000 employed women for 10 years. The findings were presented here at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2010.

Previous studies have shown that job stress predicts cardiovascular disease in men, but research in women has been sparse, with mixed results, says Michelle A. Albert, MD, MPH, of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

In her study, the risk of experiencing any cardiovascular event, including heart attacks or procedures to open clogged arteries, was about 40% higher in women with job stress, compared with women with little on-the-job stress.

High job stress is defined as having a demanding job, with little or no decision-making authority or opportunities to use one's skills. Gas station attendants and waitresses, among others, fall into that category, Albert tells WebMD.

Job Insecurity Not Linked to Heart Disease

Job stress is a form of psychological stress, which has been shown in previous research to increase the risk of heart disease to the same degree as high cholesterol levels, Albert says.

The new study also showed that women who were afraid of losing their jobs were more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and excess body weight. However, job insecurity did not translate into an increased chance of developing cardiovascular disease.

Women comprised nearly half of the labor force in the U.S. in 2009, Albert says.

Measuring Job Stress

The study involved 17,415 women, aged 44 to 85, who participated in the Women's Health Study. The women, who were primarily white health care professionals, were free of cardiovascular disease when they entered the study.

At the start of the study, participants answered detailed questionnaires asking about heart disease risk factors, job stress, and job insecurity. A standard questionnaire that asked the women to strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, or disagree with statements such as "My job requires working very fast" and "My job requires that I learn new things" was used to evaluate job stress. For job insecurity, women were simply asked to give one of those four responses to the statement, "My job security is good."

The women were tracked for 10 years, during which time 519 of them developed cardiovascular disease.

Limit Email in Off Hours

Albert suggests women and men take steps to minimize job stress, such as keeping physically active, limiting job activities -- think email -- in your off hours, and taking 10 to 15 minutes during the work day for relaxation techniques such as yoga.

AHA spokesman Russell Luepker, MD, of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, points out that the study doesn't prove cause and effect, only that there appears to be an association between job stress and cardiovascular disease.

That said, it's an association that appears to hold up in men and women, he tells WebMD. "With the worsening of the economy, the situation is probably even worse than when the study was performed," Luepker says.

This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

Show Sources


American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2010, Chicago, Nov. 13-17, 2010.

Michelle A. Albert, MD, MPH, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston.

Russell Luepker, MD, University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minneapolis.

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