Work and family demands may impact women's heart health


Work and family demands may impact women's heart health


It is believed by researchers that cardiovascular health and stress are linked in some way, but it is unclear what the association is. A new study has recently investigated the effects of a unique kind of stress – work-family conflict.

Stress is believed to increase the risk of heart disease by affecting blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a 2015 review found that there was a link between work stress and a “moderately elevated risk of incident coronary heart disease and stroke.”

However, work-family conflict is often left out of studies – this stress is felt by a person who needs to simultaneously balance the demands of work and family life.

The authors of this new study believe that further investigating this stress may ultimately aid health professionals in better identifying and treating cardiovascular issues. The study appears in the Journal of the American Heart Association.


What is work-family conflict?


According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cardiovascular diseases are currently the leading cause of death worldwide.

An individual’s cardiovascular health score can be determined using seven metrics including diet, blood pressure, and physical activity levels. The researchers of this study used this score to look into how work and family stress can impact heart health.

Work-family conflict refers to "a form of inter-role conflict in which the role pressures from the work and family domains are mutually incompatible in some respect."

The sample was made up of over 11,000 workers between the ages of 35-74 from six state capitals in Brazil. The participants had a variety of work and educational backgrounds, and there were a slightly higher number of female participants.

Each participant completed a questionnaire to determine how their work affected their family life, and how their family life affected their job.

The participants’ cardiovascular health scores were then calculated by using a combination of clinical examinations, laboratory test results, and self-reported questionnaires.


An unequal impact


The results of the study showed a distinct sex difference. Men reported less work interference with family and more time for personal care and leisure, while both men and women reported a similar amount of family interference with work.

However, women who reported a number of frequent work-family conflicts had lower cardiovascular health scores. "This was interesting because in our previous study, job stress alone affected men and women almost equally," says senior study author Dr. Itamar Santos, a professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

An explanation of the sex difference may be able to be attributed to traditional gender roles. "You feel the stress to fulfill the gender roles, and I think women still feel more of a need to have that nurturing home life," says Dr. Gina Price Lundberg, clinical director of the Emory Women's Heart Center in Atlanta, GA.

"Men are helping more than ever, but I think working women still feel the stress of trying to do it all." She goes on to describe the study as "well-designed," due to its large sample size, the diverse background of the participants, and the balance of men and women.

However, due to some elements of the study relying on the participants’ own thoughts and feelings, this could have biased the results.


How to live with stress


This study has highlighted the need for a good work-life balance – however, this is often easier said than done.

Dr. Santos hopes that the findings will help to encourage workplaces to introduce stress reducing initiatives, and encourage doctors to look for symptoms of stress when examining people.

"We're not going to eliminate stress," Dr. Santos says. "But we should learn how to live with it to not have so many bad consequences."

Whether that would be through measures such as at-home meditation or employer-led strategies is yet to be determined.

Dr. Santos and team are now planning to follow the same participants for up to a decade to gain further insight.

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