Heart disease accounts for about 1 in 4 deaths annually in the United States, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Researchers have long believed stress and heart health are linked, and a new study by a group at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, shows that one stresser in particular may be disproportionately dangerous for women.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found women are more likely to feel stress related to work-family conflict, which could affect cardiovascular health.
Work-family conflict, which researchers define as "a form of inter-role conflict in which the role pressures from the work and family domains are mutually incompatible in some respect,” is not always considered when health care providers evaluate a patient’s heart health.
"You feel the stress to fulfill the gender roles, and I think women still feel more of a need to have that nurturing home life," said Dr. Gina Price Lundberg, clinical director of the Emory Women's Heart Center. "Men are helping more than ever, but I think working women still feel the stress of trying to do it all."
It is instead more routine to examine metrics such as diet, blood pressure and physical fitness. However, evaluating stress gives providers an additional benchmark to consider.
According to the findings, reducing stress — particularly work-related stress — “may have potential benefits on cardiovascular health.”
"We're not going to eliminate stress. But we should learn how to live with it to not have so many bad consequences,” said Dr. Itamar Santos, the study’s author.
Despite changing expectations in households and around traditional gender roles, women in the study still reported more frequent stress related to balancing life at home and life at work.
The women who reported fewer work-family conflicts had better heart health scores, which were measured in the study through questionnaires, clinical exams and lab results.
Researchers looked at the health of more than 11,000 workers (5,424 men and 5,967 women) ages 35-74 over two years. They plan to follow up with the same set of participants in a decade to further examine how work-related stress impacts the heart.
Santos said he hopes the findings will encourage workplaces to implement more stress-reducing efforts, and that it will lead to more doctors considering patient stress levels in exams.
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