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Heart risks increase with long working days

UK study highlights the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) from working shifts of more than 11 hours a day
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard
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5th April 2011 - Next time someone tells you "hard work never hurt anyone", you may want to point out that researchers from University College London disagree.

Using data from a big study of civil servants that's been running since 1985, the UCL team found those who worked 11 hours or more a day had a 67% greater chance of developing coronary heart disease (CHD) than workers doing the more normal seven to eight hour days.

The study

The researchers used statistics from the "Whitehall II study" published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. They looked at 7,095 adults - 2,109 women and 4,986 men - aged between 39 and 62. They all worked full-time and didn't have heart disease at the start of the study period.

Just over 12 years into the study period, 192 participants suffered some kind of CHD 'incident' such as a heart attack, with those working longer hours having the biggest risk.

In a statement, lead researcher Professor Mika Kivimäki says doctors should ask patients about their working hours when assessing their heart risk: "Considering that including a measurement of working hours in a GP interview is so simple and useful, our research presents a strong case that it should become standard practice. This new information should help improve decisions regarding medication for heart disease. It could also be a wake-up call for people who overwork themselves, especially if they already have other risk factors."

More research needed

Professor Stephen Holgate, Chair of the MRC's Population and Systems Medicine Board, says in a statement: "This study might make us think twice about the old adage ‘hard work won’t kill you’".

He continues: "This research reminds us that it’s not just diet and exercise we need to think about."

In a statement, BHF medical director Professor Peter Weissberg says: "These most recent findings raise the possibility that long working hours may increase the risk of a heart attack. But further studies are required to confirm this association and clarify how it might be used to change our current approach to assessing someone’s risk of developing heart disease and what advice we give on working conditions."

Long hours

There are rules on the length of a working week in the UK, typically 48 hours, unless someone agrees to opt out of the European Working Time Directive. The types of profession where these opt-outs apply include the military and the emergency services. However, a working week can be a smaller number of longer shifts, such as 12 hours, instead of five shorter eight hour ones.

So if long working days are part of your job, can you reduce your heart disease risks? The British Heart Foundation offers these tips:

  • Walk or cycle to work instead of taking the bus or driving. If it’s too far, you can get off the bus a stop earlier and walk from there
  • Take the stairs instead of the lift
  • Make sure you take your lunch break and get out from behind your desk. Go for a walk and choose healthier lunch options such as salads and sandwiches with lean meat or fish as well as lots of fresh fruit
  • Keep healthy snacks at your desk, such as grapes or a handful of nuts so you’re not tempted to raid the vending machine
  • Make time for physical activities you enjoy outside work. Adults should aim to do at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on five days or more a week. This could be anything from joining a football team, taking up something new like trampolining, or getting out for longer walks in the evenings and at the weekend

The study was part funded by the British Heart Foundation and the Medical Research Council.

Reviewed on April 05, 2011

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