If you're a woman with a stressful job, you could have a much higher risk for serious heart problems later in life.
New research has found that women with significant job strain are almost 70 percent more likely to have a heart attack and nearly 40 percent more likely to have other cardiovascular traumas, such as a stroke, than women less stressed out by work.
"Everybody has stress. Our bodies are built to deal appropriately with appropriate stress," study author Dr. Michelle Albert, a professor in cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told The Huffington Post. "What we're talking about are when the body's adaptive capacities are overwhelmed and can no longer adapt."
Albert and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 22,000 women over 10 years. The women answered questions about job strain, as well as how much control they felt they had at work, agreeing or disagreeing with statements like, "My job requires working very fast" and "I have a lot to say about what happens on my job."
Based on their answers, the women were lumped into four groups according to the type and level of stress their jobs involved: "Low-strain" jobs were low-demand, high control, and "passive" jobs were low-demand, low-control. "Active" jobs were high-demand, but also gave women a sense of control, while "high-strain" jobs were both demanding and very low-control.
Overall, women in both the "active" and "high-strain" groups were much more likely to have a heart attack or other vascular problems, according to results published online in the journal PLoS ONE.
"These [increased risks] are impressive statistics, regardless of whether it's that high-strain jobs are making women eat more, or drink more or smoke more, or whether [stressful jobs] are directly leading to risk factors like diabetes and hypertension," said Dr. Helen Glassberg, a professor in cardiology at the University of Pennsylvania who did not work on the study.
According to the American Heart Association, stress can cause the body to release certain hormones that contribute to risk factors like high blood pressure, but it can also cause people to smoke, drink and overeat, all of which can hurt the heart.
This new study, Albert told HuffPost, is among the first to focus on the impact of job stress on heart health in women specifically. The findings, she said, fit mostly with what has been found in men. These results differ from those of similar studies on men in that even women who felt like they had control at work were more likely to have heart problems. Jobs that afforded a sense of control included physicians, teachers and managers.
"[Studies in] men, for the most part, don't show that active-strain group has elevated cardiovascular risk," Albert explained. While she said she was just hypothesizing, she guessed that difference might have to do with women sometimes finding themselves more isolated at work gender-wise, and also often having more significant work-family conflicts.
One major limitation of the new study is that the researchers didn't look at the role that so-called "psychosocial stressors" play in women's cardiovascular risk.
"It might be that women have more stressors, because they tend to try and balance high-demand, high-control jobs with their family life more than men do," Glassberg said.
Another limitation is that the majority of the participants, who came from the Women's Health Study, were white.
"These studies need to be done in multi-ethnic populations," Albert said.
In the meantime, there are things women can do to help lower their stress levels and, potentially, protect their hearts.
"To women who work and have high-stress jobs, this should be a red flag," Glassberg said. "You should be aware of this, and do what you can to lower stress, whether that be yoga, or meditation, or running or spending time with friends. Whatever it is."