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A healthy lifestyle can undo the damage of a stressful job

Having a healthy lifestyle could reduce the chance of having heart problems linked to a stressful job by as much as half, a new study shows.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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Recent studies have found a link between having a stressful job and heart problems. A good-quality study by researchers in Finland found that people who have stressful jobs are more likely to have heart problems than people who say their jobs are not stressful.

The same group of researchers wanted to find out if the risk of heart problems that having a stressful job brings can be reduced by having a healthy lifestyle. Avoiding stress while working, or changing jobs, isn’t a realistic option for most people. But things such as exercising, keeping to a healthy weight, not smoking, and not drinking too much alcohol, might all help to offset the risk of heart problems caused by stress.

The researchers pooled the results of seven studies of more than 100,000 people who had no known heart problems. All the people in the studies had been asked whether they were under stress at work. They also completed questionnaires about four aspects of their lifestyle. They were asked whether they smoked, if they were physically active, how much they drank (more or less than 28 units of alcohol a week for men, and 21 units a week for women), and whether they were overweight. Over an average of seven years, the researchers recorded how many people developed heart problems.

What does the new study say?

People who had a stressful job and an unhealthy lifestyle had the highest chance of heart problems. In people who had stressful jobs and more than two unhealthy lifestyle factors, about 31 people in every 1,000 had heart problems. This wasn’t much different from people who had unhealthy lifestyles but didn’t have stressful jobs.

People who had a stressful job but healthier lifestyles had a lower chance of heart problems. For example, in people who had a stressful job but no unhealthy lifestyle factors about 15 in 1,000 people had heart problems.

How reliable is the research?

This study pooled the results of several large and good-quality studies. However, the information in those studies was collected from questionnaires, and this relies on people filling them in accurately and honestly. So, although this type of study can strongly suggest links between things, it can’t really prove that one thing causes another. There may have been other things the researchers weren’t aware of that affected the results.

What does this mean for me?

This study suggests that the healthy lifestyle choices that we are all encouraged to make - things like keeping to a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol - can reduce the pressure on the heart caused by stress at work. If you have a stressful job, by thinking about your lifestyle you could be doing your heart a big favour.

Published on May 16, 2013

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