Back in the 1970s and 1980s, women rallied for equality with men in the workplace. Well, as the old saying goes, “Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.” And with that said, it seems that women have indeed achieved equal footing…for stressful, job-related heart disease.
Recent research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston shows that women who work at stressful jobs are at higher risk than women with more laid back types of employment for suffering from a heart attack, stroke, or other forms of cardiovascular disease. The women most likely to experience heart problems were those who have the least power to make decisions at work.
Fear of potentially losing a job is another source of stress that was shown to increase a woman’s chance of developing heart disease. Not such good news with the weak economy persisting.
The study was comprised of 17,415 participants, all taking part in the Women’s Health Study. The women involved were on average 57 years old, and all of them were working either full- or part-time when the research began. The majority of them were employed in a health-related field, from physicians to administrators to nurse’s aides. They answered questionnaires about their work, rating the stress and pressure placed on them on a daily basis.
The women were categorized by the researchers into four main groups, depending on their reported stress levels. Follow-up information was taken over a period of 10 years, from 1999 to 2009. This was the first major, long-term study to examine the effects of on-the-job stress on women, who now comprise close to half of the workforce in the United States.
Just as earlier studies have found men in high-stress occupations are at an increased risk for heart trouble, this research found the same holds true for women. Those with demanding positions and little decision-making power are nearly twice as likely to have a heart attack as the participants with less stressful jobs and a higher level of control. The women in the peak stress group have a 40% higher risk of any type of heart problem, which means not only heart attacks, but strokes, clogged arteries, or an issue that requires major heart surgery such as bypass or angioplasty.
Regular on-the-job stress has also been found to cause elevated blood pressure rates, high cholesterol, and unhealthy weight gains as well. Part of the blame can be placed on our production of cortisol, the stress hormone that the body releases under times of prolonged duress. Cortisol is known to cause inflammation and increase blood pressure.
Unfortunately, many women labor under the impression that heart disease is mainly a man’s problem, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women — responsible for the deaths of 500,000 American women every year — and strokes are the number three cause of death in women. Women are also 15% more likely to die of a heart attack than are men. That might be because the symptoms in women usually present as shortness of breath, anxiety, palpitations, and indigestion — all common indications of panic attacks as well. That’s why it is essential to see a physician immediately for a full range of tests if experiencing any combination of these symptoms.
High estrogen levels in the blood during the years of menstruation do work to protect younger women from heart disease, but not as well as was previously thought. Research done at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, showed that stress can reduce the amount of estrogen in younger women and promote the development of heart disease even before menopause. These suppressed estrogen levels result in the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries and eventually can cause heart attacks or strokes. Progesterone also protects against heart disease, but like estrogen, it too is reduced by stress as both cortisol and adrenaline require progesterone for their own production.
Since changing careers isn’t realistic for most women, it’s essential to learn how to manage the daily stress load as well as possible. Regular exercise can help, as can a healthy diet that avoids sugars and high glycemic foods. Taking time out of the busy day — even if it’s just a few minutes — to meditate, take a walk, or just enjoy a bit of quiet will help gradually lower your stress level. In fact, just the simple act of watching your breath flow in and out for a few minutes will calm you down. And the use of natural stress busting herbs and nutraceuticals such as valerian root, kava kava, St. John’s wort, ashwagandha, and L-theanine is a remarkably effective, safe way to ease tensions and relieve anxiety.