Is work to blame for women’s increased heart risks?

New research found that factors such as work stress and sleep disorders increased more sharply among women from 2007 to 2017.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read September 3, 2021

A new study looked at the reporting of non-traditional risk factors for heart attack and stroke. Getty

A new study has found that an “alarming” increase in the number of women reporting non-traditional risk factors for heart attack and stroke has risen right alongside the number of women working full-time jobs.

The research, presented this week at the European Stroke Organization Conference, said these factors — including work stress, sleep disorders and fatigue — increased more sharply among women than men from 2007 to 2017. The number of women participating in the workforce full time rose from 38 per cent to 44 per cent over the same period.

“Our study found men were more likely to smoke and be obese than women but females reported a bigger increase in the non-traditional risk factors for heart attacks and strokes, such as work stress, sleep disorders, and feeling tired and fatigued,” said Dr Susanne Wegener, Professor of Neurology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. “This increase coincides with the number of women working full time.

“Juggling work and domestic responsibilities or other socio-cultural aspects may be a factor, as well as specific health demands of women that may not be accounted for in our daily ‘busy’ lives.”

The study relied on data from 22,000 men and women in the Swiss Health Study at three separate intervals: 2007, 2012 and 2017. It found that, overall, both sexes reported an increase in work stress — from 59 per cent at the study’s midpoint to 66 per cent in 2017. Levels of fatigue and feeling tired similarly rose from 23 per cent to 29 per cent over the same period (33 per cent in women and 29 per cent in men). Reports of sleep disorders rose from 24 per cent to 29 per cent, increasing more sharply among women.

At the same time, however, traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) remained mostly unchanged, with 27 per cent of participants reporting hypertension, 18 per cent experiencing raised cholesterol and 5 per cent developing diabetes. Obesity increased to 11 per cent and smoking rate decreased slightly.

“We found an overall increase in non-traditional risk factors in both sexes, but these were more pronounced in female participants, while most traditional cardiovascular risk factors remained stable,” Wegener said. “These results underscore the fact that sex differences exist for non-traditional CVD risk factors with an alarming trend towards a particular increase in women.”

Heart disease, an umbrella term used to describe a variety of condition that affect the function and structure of the heart, is the second-leading cause of death in Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Roughly 1 in 12 Canadians 20 years of age or older — or 2.4 million people — live with a diagnosed case of heart disease, with roughly 12 of patients dying every hour. The disease affects men and women differently: Men tend to be diagnosed 10 years earlier and face twice the risk of suffering a heart attack.

Diabetes, arterial hypertension, raised cholesterol, smoking, obesity and inactivity are the most recognized modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease. But recent research has pointed to the significant risk that comes from non-traditional factors, such as workplace pressure and difficulty sleeping.

“The data shows that there are a wide range of risk factors for cardiovascular disease reported and these extend beyond the medical ones officially recognized to societal pressures and will help better inform prevention strategies for heart attacks and strokes,” Wegener said. “Traditionally men have been perceived to be more affected by heart attacks and strokes than women but in some countries, women have overtaken men. There is a gender gap and further research is needed to find out why.”

For more information on heart disease,support or to connect with other patients, visit Heart & Stroke.

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with