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Research uncovers strong link between work-related stress and heart problems, from Harvard Women's Health Watch

February is a great month for women to turn their thoughts to hearts—not just the chocolate kind, but the beating, pumping kind that causes health problems for so many women. On-the-job stress may be one key cause of heart disease in women, reports the February issue of Harvard Women's Health Watch. Using data from the Women's Health Study, Harvard researchers showed that women with highly stressful jobs are 40% more likely to develop heart disease than their less-stressed colleagues.

The body is programmed to react to life-threatening stress with a “fight-or-flight” response: the brain triggers chemicals and hormones that speed the heart rate, quicken breathing, and boost the amount of energy supplied to muscles. Unfortunately, the body does a poor job of discriminating between grave, imminent dangers and ongoing sources of stress, such as financial difficulties, job strain, and even worries about potential problems. When the fight-or-flight response is chronically “on,” the body suffers.

It’s unclear how job strain worsens cardiac health. This stress may aggravate inflammation in coronary arteries, leading to blood clots. Stress also makes it harder to practice heart-healthy habits, such as exercising, eating right, not smoking, and getting enough sleep.

Stress-induced heart disease isn't unique to the workplace. Many women have multiple jobs—for example, caring for children and for aging parents, while running a household and working outside the home—without the resources to manage them all. Harvard Women’s Health Watch notes that situations like this may be unavoidable, so here are steps you can take to alleviate stress:

• Foster mutually supportive relationships.

• Get regular exercise. It strengthens the heart, reduces anxiety and depression, and improves sleep.

• Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing.

• Seek help from a mental health professional.

Read the full-length article: "Job strain and heart disease risk in women"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Women's Health Watch

  • Job strain and heart disease risk in women
  • Strange bedfellows: Polymyalgia rheumatica and temporal arteritis
  • Diverticular disease prevention and treatment
  • What to do about dry skin in winter
  • In the news: Report sets new dietary intake levels for vitamin D and calcium
  • Ask the doctor: Does folic acid improve immunity?
  • Ask the doctor: How should I remove eye makeup if I have blepharitis?
  • Relaxation tips

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.