Katherine Hobson

In an attempt to live longer, you may have given up trans fats or learned to love the elliptical trainer. But there's evidence that another factor may be just as important: your job. Whether or not you're employed, how secure you are in your job, how much you enjoy your work -- all may influence your health and longevity. A study that came out in November, for example, found that men who didn't vent about unfair treatment at work doubled their chance of a heart attack or heart disease. "We spend 8, 10, 12 hours a day at work," says William Gallo, associate director of research at the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging and Longevity at Hunter College in New York. "That may be more important than whether you're on the Zone Diet."

It's known that the very fact of employment is tied to our well-being. Losing a job is bad not only from a financial perspective but from a psychosocial one; you lose ties to other people and structure as well as a paycheck. After a major downsizing among municipal workers in Finland, the risk of death from a heart attack went up fivefold for those let go. Gallo says evidence from U.S. studies has been mixed, but research has found that people who lost a job in their 50s were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke in the next decade.

It's not just the fired employees who are at risk. Even Finnish municipal workers who weren't actually downsized were more likely to die sooner, the study there found. In the United Kingdom, the "Whitehall studies" took a glimpse at a group of civil service workers whose jobs were threatened by a planned privatization. Both physical and mental health declined after the announcement, says Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London and the studies' principal investigator. Research in the United States has shown that job insecurity can be as bad for your longer-term health as a bout of serious illness or actual job loss.

Underlying all of this is the fact that, regardless of the health or precariousness of the economy, a person's socioeconomic position is associated with differences in longevity. The Whitehall studies revealed that many causes of death follow a "social gradient": the higher up on the ladder you are, the longer your life. The diseases people are dying from are generally the same, but the timing is different, Marmot says.

Critical combination? It's pretty clear, too, that something about the workplace pecking order affects health. One factor seems to be how much control employees have over the demands of their jobs. "Pressure by itself wasn't a key factor," says Marmot. "It's a combination of high demands and low control." That combination -- often found in lower-ranking, lower-paying jobs -- is associated with an earlier death as well as with health problems.

You might think access to healthcare would make a big difference. But studies show the same trends even in countries where free healthcare is available to all. Some of the difference in the Whitehall studies can be explained by the fact that people lower on the totem pole were more likely to smoke, less likely to be physically active in their leisure time, and less likely to eat fruits and vegetables, says Marmot. But researchers suspect that constant stress also is a key culprit. Studies of baboons show that both low-ranking animals and those that are socially isolated have higher levels of stress hormones like cortisol. While humans are not baboons, Marmot suspects the same biological mechanisms are at work in the civil servants he studies.

Health disparities aren't likely to go away, but the gaps can be narrowed through public policy -- better health insurance for all and getting the unemployed back to work quickly, for example. A positive work environment is important, though many folks obviously can't be too picky in this economy. It's healthiest to take your responsibilities seriously -- don't write them off as "just a job." And if you're unemployed, or unhappy at work, at least eat right and get moving; exercise is particularly helpful for relieving stress and bolstering the spirits.

© U.S. News & World Report






Health - Aging - Beware: Your Job May Be Killing You