Cardiologist Michelle Albert, a professor at Harvard Medical School, knows a thing or two about stress. Her daily routine is a high-pressure juggling act that includes seeing patients at Brigham and Women's Hospital, teaching and conducting research.
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Albert is an expert on the role that psychological stress plays in the development of heart diesase. And this past weekend, she presented results from a major new study showing that women in stressful jobs have an overall 40 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and blocked arteries.
In a search for tips on how to manage work-related stress, Shots caught up with the industrious doctor by phone as she wrapped up a "long, rigorous" day at the American Heart Association's big scientific meeting in Chicago this week.
First, though, a recap of what she and her coauthors found. After following the health of more than 17,000 women — mainly Caucasian health professionals — for more than 10 years, the researchers concluded that a stressful job increased a woman's risk of heart attack by about 88 percent and raised the risk for bypass surgery or other major cardiovascular procedure by about 43 percent.
The long study went beyond previous work in documenting a link between work stress and major health effects, such as heart attacks, strokes and deaths. "These are the real deal," says Albert. "Most of the other studies on this have a much shorter follow-up time."
Men, of course, face plenty of stress and heart-health risks themselves (Dick Cheney is one of many poster boys), but Albert says working women tend to shoulder more, including raising a family and maintaining the home. "Women have to be particularly attuned to the issue of various stressors in their lives and seek help to manage them," she says.
So what's a woman in a demanding job to do? Well, Albert admits, most people can't do much to change their jobs. But she has some thoughts on how women let off some job pressure with release and relaxation.
- Tap your network of friends and family to talk about job stress. Albert notes that people who have better coping mechanisms for job stress tend to have lower blood pressure
- Set limits on bringing work home from the office: try cutting e-mail or computer use to 15 minutes in the evenings.
- Make sure your doctor knows about the stress level of your job. (Doctors, you need to make sure you ask about job stress when taking a medical history.)
And so how does the busy doctor manage her own stress? She admits it's hard to find the time to exercise as much as she'd like to. And this worries her. "We all have lots of demands, and perhaps we spend more time at our jobs, and thinking about our jobs than we once did," she says. "But I think we need to spend just as much time focusing on personal lives to help manage the stress."