FRIDAY, Jan. 20, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- A British study strengthens the link between on-the-job stress and the risk of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular problems.
People who report that their job is stressful are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a collection of cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, according to the report.
Previous reports have shown a link between work stress and heart disease, but "the biological processes underlying this association remained unclear," said Tarani Chandola, a senior lecturer in epidemiology and public health at University College London, and lead author of the new research. "The study shows that there is a dose-response association between exposure to work stress and the metabolic syndrome."
The findings appear in the Jan. 21 issue of the British Medical Journal.
Chandola and his colleagues questioned more than 10,000 British civil servants between the ages of 35 and 55 over a 14-year period, asking them four times during that period to say whether they felt stress on the job. Measurements of blood pressure, cholesterol and other metabolic syndrome components also were taken.
"There was a stepwise increase in the odds of the metabolic syndrome with increasing levels of exposure to work stress," Chandola said.
Men with chronic work stress were twice as likely to develop metabolic syndrome than those reporting no work stress. Women with work stress were also more likely to develop the syndrome, but there were only a few of them in the study.
People with metabolic syndrome were also more likely to have bad health habits, such as a poor diet with little consumption of fruits and vegetables. They also had a tendency to smoke, drink too much and not exercise enough, the researchers said.
Why should stress lead to metabolic syndrome, which has also been linked to type 2 diabetes? Chandola offered some thoughts.
Stress might affect the autonomic nervous system, which controls the activity of organs, blood vessels and glands, he said. Alternatively, stress might influence the production of hormones throughout the body. "We are currently investigating the effect of work stress on both systems," he said.
Steps need to be taken to help relieve stress, Chandola said. Previous reports found that civil servants who felt they were being treated fairly at work had a reduced risk of heart disease, while the risk was higher for those who felt they had little or no control over their work.
"Studies on workplace redesign to increase a worker's sense of control and participation at work have resulted in fewer sick days amongst workers in the experimental group," Chandola said.
On the individual level, counseling to modify a worker's sense of control might be helpful, he said.
The American Heart Association offers advice on handling stress.