NEW YORK — Women with high-stress jobs face about 88 percent more risk of a heart attack than if they had low workplace strain, Harvard University researchers said.
The scientists defined the stressful positions as those with demanding tasks and little authority or creativity. Those jobs were also associated with a 40 percent greater chance of getting any kind of cardiovascular disease, according to a study presented Sunday in Chicago at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions.
Job strain, social isolation and some personality traits have been recognized as raising risks in both men and women, according to the Dallas-based heart association. The new study represents the longest-running examination of the cardiovascular effects of job strain in women, the Harvard scientists said.
"The big thing is, what's happening to you now in terms of mental tension has long-term effects on your health," said Michelle Albert, the study's senior author, who is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a cardiologist at Brigham & Women's Hospital, both located in Boston.
The study analyzed job strain in 17,415 participants from the Women's Health Study, a U.S. project that began in 1991 and ended last year, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, based in Bethesda, Md.
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.
The best way to respond to stress may be to increase physical activity, carve out time for soothing activities or meditation, and spend time with a peer group of confidantes, Albert said in a telephone interview.
Employers may wish to create less-stressful environments, since employees who are under strain are more likely to be ill and not show up to work, Albert said.
Doctors should ask patients about their stress, since the heart-attack risk linked to psychological stress is almost as much as that associated with high levels of blood cholesterol, she said.
"Doctors need to ask questions to get a clue about stressors," Albert said.
Stress stimulates a biological response in animals called "fight or flight," Albert said. This may raise the heart rate and blood pressure, and may have negative effects on the cells of the heart, she said.