Air traffic controllers' stress management and hypertension risk
Research reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine follows up on a 1974-1978 study on how controllers' blood pressure and heart rate responded to heavy workloads. Controllers whose systolic blood pressure rose in response to stress during that period were more likely to develop developed chronic high blood pressure 20 years later.
According to Robert M. Rose, M.D., of the University of Texas Medical Branch and colleagues, the study is the first “to report that cardiovascular reactivity to work stress may be a long-term predictor of incident hypertension.”
“Sustained high vigilance is required for successful air traffic control work. The consequences of errors in judgment, although very uncommon, can be disastrous. It is not surprising, in light of these considerations, that air traffic controllers have a high risk of hypertension,” Rose says.
The original 1974 study measured stress by recording blood pressure, heart rate and behavioral signs of anxiety every 20 minutes for five work days and compared these measures to the volume of air traffic under each controller's command during those times.
Twenty years later, Rose and colleagues tracked down 218 of these controllers to discover how their health had changed during the intervening two decades. The group of 218 white men either had mild or no signs of high blood pressure in the 1974-1978 study.
By 1994, almost 17 percent of the controllers had developed hypertension. The men who had stronger swings in systolic blood pressure in response to workload were significantly more likely to develop high blood pressure than their colleagues, the researchers found.
Rose says that a 1981 air traffic controllers' strike and the subsequent firing of the striking air traffic controllers by President Ronald Reagan did not affect the outcome. “We did not find that those who went on strike had a greater propensity to hypertension later on,” he notes.
Although several other studies have found a link between workplace stress and high blood pressure, Rose says the air traffic controllers may represent a particularly strong case of stress affecting health.
“The workload measure used here is a unique one. It is not clear whether or how one would design equivalent measures in samples of other occupations,” he notes.
The study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The MacArthur Foundation also provides support to the Center for the Advancement of Health.
By Becky Ham, Science Writer
Health Behavior News Service
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