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American Heart Association

Stress at work and home put women at health risk

5 Minute Read

As the old saying goes, a woman’s work is never done. And that work – which these days is a combination of household duties and long days at the office – can put women at higher risk than men for several health conditions.  As women take on the roles of both kin-keeper and breadwinner, they are at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke, according to research.  "You have to take care of yourself. But with women, their little internal voice says, 'Oh, that's selfish. You should be doing for others.' And then you end up neglecting yourself," said Dr. Gina Lundberg, clinical director of the Emory Women's Heart Center in Atlanta. The stress comes from high pressure to perform at work, combined with caretaking duties at home. Women who reported high levels of work-related stress were 38% more likely to have a cardiovascular event than coworkers with low levels of stress, according to one study.

In other research, older women who suffered from traumatic events, as well as chronic home- and work-related pressure, nearly doubled their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Psychosocial stressors, even when associated with something positive like getting a promotion at work, trigger a hormonal reaction in the body that has been linked to weight gain and increased risk for heart disease.  If women expect to continue to take care of their loved ones, they must first take care of themselves, Lundberg said. She likens it to the safety instructions given to airplane passengers before each flight: In case of an emergency, parents should put the oxygen mask on themselves before they help their children with theirs.

"Women need to make time for their general maintenance and health care,” said Dr. Lundberg. “And we have to promote that it's not selfish to get your exercise, get your sleep, go to your doctor, get your mammogram, and get your (cardiac) stress tests."

Workplace stress has been shown to have significant effects on health.  A study, published last year in the American Heart Association's journal Stroke, found people who regularly worked long hours had a higher risk of stroke, especially if they worked those hours for 10 years or more. The association seemed stronger for people younger than 50, researchers said.  Study author Dr. Alexis Descatha, a researcher at Paris Hospital, Versailles and Angers University and at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), said in a news release that the findings were unexpected. Noting the long hours put in by many health care providers, Descatha was taking the results personally.  As a clinician, I will advise my patients to work more efficiently and plan to follow my own advice,” she said.  And often women will put in long hours at work, only to come home to more work. The result is little time for healthy behaviors, like exercise, relaxation and meal preparation.  "Many times, if individuals are too stressed, it's very easy to say, 'Well, I have so much to do that I don't have time to exercise.' Or maybe not eat as healthy as one should. I often joke that ice cream is much more soothing than an apple when you're in a period of stress," said Dr. Sherita Hill Golden, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.  Golden urged women to find a good primary care physician, someone other than a gynecologist, who they can rely on for regular monitoring of cholesterol levels and other cardiovascular risk factors.

Besides taking steps to control blood pressure, cholesterol and to stop smoking, experts also recommend women engage in a hobby that can help relax them physically or mentally.  One way of doing that is to regularly "unplug" or find another way to get away from electronics, Lundberg suggests.  "Actually turn your phone off,” Lundberg said. “Meditate, pray, do whatever you need to de-stress. Drink more water and get a good night's sleep.”

Article provided by the American Heart Association

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