Is your job hurting your heart? Some occupations are riskier than others.
April 16, 2013
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Your job, your heart
Although most people don't think of heart disease as an occupational hazard, certain characteristics of your job may be upping your risk for heart attacks and other problems.
Some work-related factorssuch as sitting long hours at a desk, stress, irregular work hours, and exposure to certain chemicals or pollutioncould also harm your heart.
Here are some jobs and job characteristics that could be upping your riskand what to do about it.
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People who are sedentary at work have a higher risk of heart problems than those in more active jobs, says Martha Grogan, MD, a cardiologist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. and editor of the book, Mayo Clinic Healthy Heart for Life!
It's not clear why, but prolonged sitting may cause a drop in insulin sensitivity and enzymes that normally break down fat, she says.
Jobs that combine inactivity with bouts of high stress activitylike fighting crime or firesaren't that great either. About 22% of on-the-job deaths in police officers and 45% in firefighters are due to cardiovascular disease compared to 15% in other jobs.
Long hours, shift work, unhealthy eating at work, stress, exposure to carbon monoxide or other pollutants, as well as high rates of other risk factors, like hypertension (which have been documented in emergency responders), may play a role.
If you can't change your job, focus on thingslike healthy eating, exercise, and lowering blood pressurethat you can control.
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Bus drivers are more likely to have hypertension than other workers, says Peter L. Schnall, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine.
It may be because it's a sedentary occupation that requires vigilance to avoid accidents and keep passengers safe, which can stress your system, he says.
While you may not be able to control stress or pollution, you can address other risk factors.
In one study, 56% of bus drivers in Taipei had hypertension compared with 31% of other workers. They also had higher cholesterol, body weight, trigylercides, and heart disease rates.
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Rotating shifts, a schedule common for doctors, nurses, and others, is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Shift work itself may disrupt circadian rhythms, the "body clock" that plays a role in blood sugar, blood pressure, and insulin regulation.
But lifestyle may be a factor too. Night-shift workers seem to be more likely to smoke, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. And short sleep duration is linked to greater heart risk (5 to 6 hours per night vs. 7 to 8 hours).
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Many states and cities in the U.S. now have anti-smoking laws in restaurants and bars.
But bartenders and servers in places that don't have such restrictions can still be forced to involuntarily inhale patrons' tobacco smoke.
"It's been well shown that secondhand smoke significantly increases the risk of heart attack," says Dr. Grogan.
Good ventilation systems can help. So can lobbying your legislators to change local rules.
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Bridge and tunnel workers
One 1988 study of more than 5,000 New York City bridge and tunnel worker found that people who had worked in transportation tunnels had a 35% increased risk of heart-related death compared to the general population.
"It's intuitive," says Mauro Moscucci, MD, chief of the cardiovascular division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "These workers are exposed to higher levels of carbon monoxide compared to bridge workers."
People who work in factories or any job that is highly demandingthink hourly quotaswith little control over the pace or other aspects of work, are also thought to be at higher risk of heart disease.
"Being out of control of your own fate is an increased stressor leading to cardiovascular disease," says Dr. Moscucci.
The landmark Whitehall study of about 11,000 British civil servants found that men and women with low job control had double the risk of heart disease as those with more control over their work.
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Employees who work long hours are also at higher risk. "We do know there's a relationship between workload and coronary artery disease," says Dr. Schnall.
The Whitehall study found a 67% increased risk for coronary heart disease among British civil servants who worked 11 or more hours a day compared with those only working 7 to 8 hours.
If you can't cut back on your hours, focus instead on risk factors you can control: eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, get enough sleep, and exercise several times a week.
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Jobs with no health insurance
About 50 million Americans, or 1 in 6 people, were uninsured in 2010.
Lack of health insurance has been associated with worse health in general and heart health in particular.
But previously uninsured adults who started receiving Medicare reported better health after acquiring coverage, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
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Losing your job
While some occupations can be hazardous to your heart, losing your job can be too.
Older workers who lose their job through no fault of their own (for example, because an office or plant closed, not because of health problems) have more than double the stroke risk as people who keep their jobs, according to a 2004 study.
And a Harvard study from 2009 found that people who lost their job were more likely to develop a new problem, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease in the next year or two than those who didn't.