Researchers at Harvard Medical School report that women with highly stressful jobs are 40% more likely to have poor cardiac health, such as a heart disease, a heart attack or coronary artery surgery, compared to their less-stressed colleagues.

The study examined data from the Women’s Health Study, a disease-prevention initiative involving more than 17,000 female health professionals.

Although the researchers are unclear on how job strain worsens cardiac health, they believe work-related stress may aggravate inflammation in coronary arteries, which can lead to blood clots and a heart attack.

In addition, stress makes it difficult to adopt heart-healthy habits, such as exercising, eating right, not smoking and getting enough sleep.

"It’s hard to tell what proportion of heart attack risk is due to psychological stress as opposed to, say, smoking or lack of exercise. And some women may be predisposed (genetically or from early life experience) to react less effectively than others to stressors," write Harvard researchers in the February issue of Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

Stress levels and job strain can also increase for working women who are caring for children, aging parents, or other relatives.

Similar studies in other countries have also discovered a strong link between on-the-job stress and heart trouble for women, according to Harvard researchers. A 15-year study of nurses in Denmark found that the greater the work pressure, the higher the risk for heart disease among women ages 51 and under. 

Meanwhile, research in China that examined white-collar workers in Beijing found work-related stress was associated in women with increased thickness of the carotid artery wall, an early sign of cardiovascular disease.

The Harvard research also revealed that women who worry about losing their jobs are more likely to have high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels and to be obese.

Health experts explain that the body reacts to life-threatening stress with a "fight-or-flight response, which triggers the brain chemicals and hormones that speed the heart rate, quicken breathing, and boost the amount of energy supplied to muscles." 

The body, however, "does a poor job of discriminating between grave, imminent dangers and ongoing sources of stress, such as financial difficulties, job strain and worries about potential problems. When the fight-or-flight response is chronically 'on,' the body suffers," observe the researchers.

In the study, researchers defined "job strain" as a combination of psychological demand and the degree of control. Demand means the amount, pace and difficulty of the work, while control refers to the ability to make work-related decisions or be creative at work.

Harvard researchers recommend the following steps to alleviate stress:

  • Foster mutually supportive relationships.
  • Get regular exercise. It strengthens the heart, reduces anxiety and depression, and improves sleep.
  • Limit intrusions (such as work-related e-mails) on your life outside of work.
  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing.
  • Seek help from a mental health professional.

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