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 big 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.
It did a number on Jackie Morgan, 46, a suburban Boston woman who is on her second medical leave of absence in two years from a teleconference center, where she managed 16 operators running corporate conference calls.
"Dropped calls? Somebody's line not open? You're running from operator to operator to handle problems that occur during the call," she explained. "It's very stressful. When I tell people about it, they look at me like I have three heads. I feel like I should have Rollerblades on."
Her heart problems started in the summer of 2008, with a crush of calls related to auto company bailouts.
"I just started getting chest pains" and collapsed while out walking one night, she said. Tests found no signs of heart disease, but doctors gave her nitroglycerin pills, which can relieve chest tightness due to constricted heart arteries.
"Sure enough, when the pain came again a few other times I took the nitro and boom, the pain was gone," Morgan 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."
She has these tips for workers:
-Exercise. It clears the mind, lifts the mood and curbs other heart risks, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.
-Limit bringing work home.
-Get a life. Do things with friends, whether they're folks you work with or not.
-Build "me time" into every day. "It can be as little as 10 or 15 minutes to meditate, pray or take a walk," Albert said.