If a modern-day Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in 1970, he would be truly amazed at the gender landscape he would wake up to see: Women working as doctors, lawyers, university presidents, CEOs of major corporations.
No one believes that the glass ceiling has really ceased to exist, but new opportunities have opened up that many women would not have dreamed possible in 1970. But do these new challenges bring new health risks?
Studies, conducted mainly with male subjects, have found consistent associations between workplace stress and cardiovascular disease. High-level executives are considered prime targets for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and the mid-40s heart attack. Are women moving into these positions subjecting themselves to the same risks?
Early studies had conflicting results, but recent research seems to confirm that workplace stress is as much of a health risk for women as it is for men.
Findings from 22,000 otherwise healthy middle-aged women followed for 10 years in the Women’s Health Study indicate that women reporting “high job strain” were 38 percent more likely than other women to have heart-related events and 70 percent more likely to have a heart attack.
According to the study’s definition, high job strain meant demanding work but few opportunities to make decisions or use creativity. Subjects with highly stressful jobs but substantial control — such as physicians, executives, nurses and managers — also had a higher risk of heart-related events and heart attacks, according to the study published in PloS ONE.
The Danish Nurse Cohort Study found a similar link between workplace stress and heart disease. And a Chinese study found increased thickness of the carotid artery wall in female white collar workers exposed to high workplace stress. This is an early sign of an impending stroke or heart attack.
Every person reacts differently to stress, but generally the human body is programmed to react to any stress as if life were in danger. Hormones and chemicals are released that cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure and a boost in sugar rushed to muscle cells for energy. This is commonly known as the “fight or flight syndrome.”
A certain amount of stress in life is inevitable and healthy. Substantial stress, poorly managed, over a long period, however, can contribute to chronic medical conditions such as hypertension and high cholesterol.
Inflammation in blood vessels, as measured by c-reactive protein or CRP, is recognized as a risk factor for heart disease. Stress may aggravate this inflammation and lead to the formation of blood clots that are a major cause of heart attacks and strokes.
It’s hard to follow a healthy diet when you’re forced constantly to grab a bite to eat on the run or, even worse, skip meals —leading eventually to overeating and weight gain. In response to workplace stress, a woman is more likely to start smoking or find it difficult to quit. At the same time, she has less time to exercise and sleep. All of these factors multiply the negative effect on the heart and blood vessels.
You probably know when you’re stressed out, but signs such as indigestion, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, racing heart, constant worry, inability to concentrate, anger, anxiety and mood swings should not be ignored.
There is no question that the stress itself requires attention. But heart-related problems such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol must also be identified and treated early.
Short of quitting your job and opening a boutique, there are many things you can do to make stress less of a hindrance to your life.
¦ Set realistic goals and expectations.
¦ However busy your schedule, make sure you have some time for yourself and the things you most like to do.
¦ Don’t neglect your exercise; it’s one of the best ways to relax and unload your worries. And it’s also one of the best things you can do to keep your heart and blood vessels healthy.
¦ Follow a healthy balanced diet and take time to eat regular meals with your family.
¦ Stop smoking and don’t use alcohol to relieve anxiety.
¦ Learn relaxation techniques such as meditation, controlled breathing, progressive relaxation, visualization or biofeedback.
You don’t have to be a CEO or a university president to experience stress, of course. In fact, a stay-at-home mother with two or more pre-schoolers may have one of the most stress-filled jobs in the world.
A certain amount of stress is good for you, challenging both mind and body. Don’t run from it but learn to manage it.
Linda Newbury is the Director of Women’s Health at Bay Area Medical Center.