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The benefits of gainful employment are many, but working hard may have a downside: an increased risk of heart attack. A new study found that people who worked 11 hours or more a day were 67% more likely to have a heart attack or die of one over an average 12 years of follow-up, compared with people who worked standard seven- or eight-hour days.
The study followed more than 7,000 British civil service workers aged 39 to 62 who originally signed up between 1991 and 1993. At the start of the study, none of the participants had heart disease. Researchers screened the group for heart disease every five years until 2004, and also consulted hospital data and registries to track rates of heart attack and death. By the end of the study, 29 participants had died of heart disease and 163 had had heart attacks. The 11-hour mark appeared to be key. Those who worked relatively long days — up to 10 hours a day — were not at significantly higher heart risk than those who worked less. But once workers crossed the 11-hour threshold, their heart disease risk went up.
Why long work hours are associated with an increase in heart risk isn't clear. It could be that working long days isn't a risk factor in itself, but a marker for other things that increase risk: for instance, high-stress types who are already at increased risk for heart disease may simply work longer than other people. The study's authors theorized that chronic stress may be a culprit, since stress affects metabolic function and can lead to depression and sleep problems — all of which are associated with increased risks of heart disease and heart attacks.