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Working overtime is bad for the heart [Updated]

May 11, 2010 |  4:45 pm

Ecg Who didn't suspect it? Working overtime, according to a long-term study, may do a number on the ticker. The finding, which was published in the European Heart Journal, found that rates of angina, nonfatal heart attacks and death from heart-related conditions was 60% higher in people who worked at least three hours beyond "the normal, seven-hour day" compared with those who didn't work that amount of overtime.

We won't quibble about the "normal seven-hour day" bit. We'll go on to explain that the data came from the Whitehall II study, a long-term investigation into the health of more than 10,000 London office workers who've been tracked since 1985. This particular study looked at 6,014 of these men and women, tracking their health for an average of 11 years.

The researchers, led by Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and University College London, aren't sure what the link is caused by: The study did find that overtime-workers tended to be type A people, who are more prone to heart disease, and to be more anxious and depressed. But did the overwork make them that way -- or did they start out that way to begin with?

Maybe they were stressed out from all that work (chronic stress is bad for the heart). Perhaps they got less sleep (sleep deprivation seems to be linked to more and more health problems with each passing day). Maybe lonely people tend to work more overtime. Maybe chronic workers go to work when they're sick instead of staying at home in bed, as they should.

Whatever the answer to the chicken-egg question that these population studies (even the best of them)  tend to leave one with, it might be good to play it safe and eschew wee-hour stints at the office in favor of  taking a stroll or pulling a weed or two in the garden.

To the extent that we have control over these things, that is. The study notes that a) overtime work "has increased in recent years" and b) the U.S. is one of the countries that is well above average in this arena. 

The scientists did note that having "decision latitude" in the workplace seemed to lessen the link between overtime and angina rates in the study. They say it's possible -- though it's still an open question -- that choosing to work long hours may not be as rough on the heart as having to work the hours against your will.

[Updated at 7:40 a.m.: Here are links to the study as well as a commentary on it that also ran in the European Heart Journal.]

-- Rosie Mestel

Image: An electrocardiogram. (Yours may not look so good if you work too many hours at the office.)