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Being out of work linked with increased heart attack risk

The more time you spend out of work, the higher your risk of a heart attack, a new study suggests.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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Studies have shown that unemployment can affect your physical and mental health, and that over time this can affect your risk of heart problems and heart attacks. There are around 124,000 heart attacks in the UK each year, so it’s important to understand what can cause them.

Researchers studied the link between periods of unemployment and heart attack risk by interviewing more than 13,000 adults with an average age of 62, every two years over a period of 18 years. People were asked how many jobs they had had in their adult working lives, how long they had had those jobs for, and how long they had spent out of work. They were also asked whether they had had a heart attack.

The researchers took into account factors that could have affected people’s risk of a heart attack, such as:

  • Their age and sex
  • Where they lived
  • Their level of education
  • Whether they smoked or drank
  • How physically active they were
  • Whether they had health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure

The researchers then looked at how likely people who had spent time out of work were to have a heart attack, compared with other people of the same age who had never lost their job.

What does the new study say?

On average, around eight people in every 100 had a heart attack during the study period. After accounting for things that affected people’s heart attack risk, people who had lost a job were more likely to have had a heart attack than people who had never lost their job.

The more times people had lost their job, the greater their risk of a heart attack, and people who had been unemployed four or more times were at the highest risk of a heart attack. The risk of a heart attack was highest in the first year of being unemployed.

The study found that being out of work might be just as likely to cause heart problems as other, more widely recognised heart risks, such as smoking, or having health problems such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

How reliable is the research?

The researchers highlighted a few problems with the design of the study, which could have affected the results. If people forgot or missed out some details about their employment history, or about their heart attacks, this would have made the results less reliable. The researchers did not have information about whether people were taking any treatments for health conditions that could have affected their risk of a heart attack, and didn’t collect information about the nature of people’s work and why people lost their jobs. We don’t know if the circumstances in which people became unemployed affected their heart attack risk.

What does this mean for me?

This type of study can only suggest that there is a link between periods of unemployment and an increase in the risk of a heart attack. It can’t prove that being unemployed, or the stress of losing your job, definitely increases your heart attack risk. It’s worth noting also that people who voluntarily left their jobs, for example those who retired, were not at a higher risk of a heart attack. The researchers stressed that this is the first study to investigate this link, and more good-quality studies are needed before we can be sure what it means.

Published on November 20, 2012

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