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Science Careers Blog

January 23, 2008

Stress and Heart Disease Among Younger Workers

Reuters, via MSNBC, reports today on a study in the European Heart Journal on the association between work-related stress and coronary heart disease. Science Careers often reports on conditions that can cause conflict or stress, to help scientists and engineers cope with their work conditions. But this research points out that it's the younger workers -- not necessarily the old folks -- who need to worry about the impact of work stress on their hearts.

The study aimed to uncover the linkages between stress at work and coronary heart disease, when combined with risk factors such as smoking, lack of exercise, and poor diet. The research team from University College London and St. George's University of London studied some 10,300 British civil servants aged 35 and older, through interviews, postal questionnaires, and clinical examinations. The research covered a 20-year period, from 1985 to 2004.

The researchers measured work-related stress on the surveys and questionnaires. They rated work conditions more stressful when the demands of the job were high but the workers' decision-making latitude was low. The researchers also rated the degree of social isolation -- the degree to which workers faced by stressful conditions had no support from co-workers or supervisors.

The researchers found an association between higher work stress and coronary heart diseases such as heart attacks (myocardial infarction) and angina. When dividing the subjects by age, they found that the younger (through age 49) workers had a stronger association between work stress and heart disease, while the 50+ age group showed little association. Stressed-out workers also had lower heart-rate variability, a sign the heart is functioning poorly, and higher levels of cortisol, a hormone found in stressful ("fight or flight") situations.

The researchers found that the lifestyles of the subjects were also associated with heart disease. Subjects who smoked, exercised little, and had diets low in fruits and vegetables reported higher rates of heart disease.

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