Researchers believe that stress and cardiovascular health are linked in some way, but the association is not yet fully clear. A large-scale new study has recently delved into the effects of a unique kind of stress.
One major source of stress is the workplace.
In fact, a 2015 review of 27 studies that appeared in the journal Current Cardiology Reports found an association between work stress and a "moderately elevated risk of incident coronary heart disease and stroke."
However, one type of stress that researchers often leave out of studies is that felt by a person who needs to simultaneously balance the demands of work and family life.
Examining this in more depth may eventually help health professionals better identify and treat cardiovascular issues. This is according to the authors of the new study, which now appears in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
What is work-family conflict?
Cardiovascular diseases are currently the leading cause of death worldwide, say the World Health Organization (WHO).
Health professionals can determine people's cardiovascular health score. Based on seven metrics including diet, blood pressure, and physical activity levels, the researchers who conducted the new study used this score to investigate how work and family stress can impact heart health.
According to the study paper, 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."
More than 11,000 workers ages 35–74, from six state capitals in Brazil, made up the study's sample. The participants came from a variety of educational and work backgrounds, and the study included a slightly higher number of women.
Each participant filled out a questionnaire to determine how their job affected their family life, and how their family life impacted their work.
The researchers calculated the participants' cardiovascular health scores using a combination of clinical examinations, laboratory test results, and self-reported questionnaires.
An unequal impact
The analysis showed a distinct sex difference. Men reported less work interference with family and more time for personal care and leisure. Both sexes reported a similar amount of family interference with work.
However, women appeared to be worse off. Those 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.
There could be a simple explanation as to why this is the case, and it has to do with 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, certain elements of the study relied on the participants' own thoughts and feelings, which may have biased the results.
How to live with stress
What this study has dipped into is the need for a good work-life balance. However, this is easier said than done in many cases.
Dr. Santos hopes that the new findings will encourage workplaces to introduce stress reducing initiatives and encourage doctors to look for signs 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.