CHICAGO — Working women are equal to men in a way they’ll wish they weren’t. Female workers with stressful jobs were more likely than women with less job strain to suffer a heart attack or a stroke or to have clogged arteries, a large federally funded study found.
Worrying about losing a job can raise heart risks, too, researchers found.
The results seem sure to resonate in a weak economy with plenty of stress about jobs — or lack of them. The mere fact this study was done is a sign of the times: Past studies focused on men, the traditional breadwinners, and found that higher job stress raised heart risks. This is the longest major one to look at stress in women, who now make up nearly half of the workforce.
“The reality is these women don’t have the same kind of jobs as men” and often lack authority or control over their work, said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of the Women and Heart Disease program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “It’s not just going to work, it’s what happens when you get there.”
Steinbaum had no role in the study, which was led by Dr. Michelle Albert, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Results were reported Sunday at an American Heart Association conference in Chicago.
The research involved 17,415 participants in the Women’s Health Study, a long-running trial looking at heart disease and cancer prevention. The women were healthy, 57 years old on average, and had worked full or part-time when the study began in 1999.
Most were health professionals, “anything from being a nurse’s aide all the way to a Ph.D.,” Albert said. They filled out surveys about their jobs, rating statements like “My job requires working very fast,” and “I am free from competing demands that others make.”
Researchers put them in four groups based on stress they reported and looked 10 years later to see how they fared.
Women with demanding jobs and little control over how to do them were nearly twice as likely to have suffered a heart attack as women with less demanding jobs and more control. The high-stress group had a 40 percent greater overall risk of heart problems, including heart attacks, strokes or clogged arteries needing bypass surgery or an artery-opening angioplasty procedure.
Women worried about losing their jobs had higher blood pressure, cholesterol and body weight.
Stress can harm by releasing “fight or flight” hormones, spurring inflammation and raising blood pressure, Steinbaum said.
Doctors should ask about stress along with traditional heart risk factors like smoking and blood pressure, Albert said. “We need to start taking that seriously.”