Men with stressful jobs may already be at risk of early artery disease by their early 30s, a new study suggests.
Researchers in Finland found that among the more than 1,000 young adults they studied, men who reported high levels of job strain were more likely than their peers to show signs of early artery narrowing. The same was not true of young women, however.
A number of studies have found a link between job strain and heart disease, but it’s not clear that work demands are the cause of the higher risk.
The new findings, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, point to a possible connection between job strain and the beginnings of atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque in the arteries that eventually impairs blood flow and can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
The study included 1,020 men and women taking part in an ongoing project looking at cardiovascular risk factors in young adults. Participants, who were 32 years old, on average, answered questionnaires about their work conditions and underwent ultrasound scans of the carotid arteries in the neck.
The researchers defined high job strain as work that puts high demands on employees but offers them little independence or leeway in how to accomplish their tasks. Past studies have suggested that such jobs can be particularly stressful.
Thickening in artery wall
Overall, men judged to have high job strain tended to show greater thickening in the carotid artery wall, which can signal the early stages of atherosclerosis. This relationship held true when the study authors factored in the men’s smoking habits, weight, exercise levels and other influences over cardiovascular health.
It is “far from clear” why job strain may affect the health of the artery walls, lead study author Dr. Liisa Keltikangas-Jarvinen, of the University of Helsinki, told Reuters Health.
She noted that the potential reasons range from the direct effects of stress on the nervous system to more indirect explanations. People in highly stressful jobs may, for example, have little time for exercise or have poorer eating habits.
Another open question is the reason for the gender discrepancy in this study, because job strain was not linked to early atherosclerosis in young women.
According to Keltikangas-Jarvinen, the effects of job strain on women’s arteries may not yet be apparent at this early age.
In general, men develop atherosclerosis earlier than women do. And at this relatively young age, Keltikangas-Jarvinen noted, men may tend to be more involved in their jobs compared with women, many of whom may have taken time off to have children. There is evidence, the researcher added, that women tend to reach the most demanding point of their careers several years later than men do.
So if this study were repeated 10 years down the road, Keltikangas-Jarvinen said, the gender difference may no longer be there.