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Unemployment Takes Toll on the Heart

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Updated: 10/13 10:46 pm

Nov. 19, 2012 -- Unemployment and a history of job loss may raise the risk for heart attack, a new study suggests.

The risk of heart attack may be highest during the first year of unemployment. And the more jobs a person loses, the higher the risk, the study shows.

The findings are published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Researchers looked at 13,451 adults aged 51 to 75 who took part in the Health and Retirement Study. They were interviewed about employment every two years from 1992 to 2010.

Fourteen percent were unemployed when the study began. Nearly 70% had lost one or more jobs. Slightly more than 35% had been unemployed at some point in their career. The researchers do not know if the unemployed people in the study quit their jobs or were let go.

During the study period, 7.9% had a heart attack.

Compared to those who had not lost a job, people who lost four or more jobs were 63% more likely to have a heart attack. People who lost one job had a 22% increased risk.

Exactly why these people are at greater risk for heart attack is not known.

Unemployment and Your Health

"The risks of heart attack associated with multiple job losses were of the magnitude of other established risk factors, such as smoking, hypertension, and diabetes," says study researcher Matthew E. Dupre, PhD. He is an assistant professor of medicine at Duke University.

Overall, the harmful effects of unemployment were largely the same for men and women, and for major racial and ethnic groups, the study shows.

"Clearly, there are several reasons that could lead to an elevated incidence of heart disease [in the unemployed]," says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO. She is a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

The reasons include "stress associated with the financial difficulties, the elevation in [the stress hormone] cortisol, and the chronic anxiety it produces," Steinbaum says.

People who are unemployed may be more likely to smoke, drink too much alcohol, and eat unhealthy foods. They may also be less likely to exercise, she says. All of these bad habits can affect the heart.

"We need to be aware of the effects of the reality of job loss on a person's heart," Steinbaum says. "In this day and age, when unemployment rates are so high, and job loss is not an uncommon situation, we must pay attention to the toll that this is having on an individual's risk of heart disease, especially within that first year."

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