How job loss affects your risks for heart attack

Job seekers wait in line to enter the San Francisco Hire Event job fair on November 9, 2011 in San Francisco, California.
. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

TORONTO – James Vacheff built an entire life around his 29-year tenure at the Mr. Christie plant in Etobicoke, Ont.

He started working at the plant at age 20, met his wife there, had two children and shaped their lives around his stable job.

Vacheff worked his way through the plant, from baker to machine captain and eventually rose to the level of union president, all the while creating a routine around his work. He didn’t even need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning.

Last month, he was laid off along with 550 other employees.

Even though he hasn’t left the plant yet, he’s already having trouble sleeping and managing the gravity of the situation.

“Basically our life was surrounded by that plant as it helped us become what we are today,” he told Global News.

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“My life will be changed now, right?” he said. “It’s just a very stressful thing for people because they’re not prepared for it. Somebody else is controlling their lives.”

Heart health and unemployment

While most Canadians facing unemployment feel the burden of financial pressure on their shoulders, they should also watch their health – job loss weighs heavy on the heart.

Being laid off or fired could increase the risk of heart attack by 35 per cent, according to Duke University researchers.

There are three factors involved in this steep increase of heart risk – how long you’ve been unemployed since losing your job, the number of jobs you’ve lost in your lifetime and the initial year after being let go.

“Anything that challenges your ability to cope with the demands being made on you is going to be stressful. I would suspect that losing a job is going to be one of the more stressful life situations that anybody is going to face,” Duke University’s Dr. Redford Williams told Global News.

Every two years between 1992 and 2010, the university interviewed 13,451 men and women between 51 and 75 for their study. The subjects’ health data was recorded in a national health and retirement study.

Results showed that the highest risk of heart attack was in the first year after a job loss. If you lost another job, your risk increased by 22 per cent. And after four job losses the risk skyrocketed to 63 per cent. That’s on par with the heart risks involved with smoking.

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“These markers of unemployment had just as big an effect on heart attack risk as the standard risk factors: smoking, cholesterol levels being high, blood pressure being high,” Williams warned.

The effects of job loss didn’t discriminate either – the findings were consistent for men and women, ethnicity, education level and socioeconomic status.

Williams said that the study authors conducted tests to see if depression, high blood pressure, or other factors contributed to this spike in heart attack risk.

“Most likely it was due to physiological effects of the stress and distress of being unemployed,” he said.

“What’s likely happening is that stress hormones like cortisol, adrenalin are going up and causing physiological changes in the body,” he explained.

Williams said these stress hormones affect the body’s platelet function – they get stickier and mobilize lipids from the body’s fat stores. Those sticky platelets are then more likely to clog an artery triggering a heart attack. Inflammatory proteins in the bloodstream also make their way to the body’s arteries, causing buildup.

Shifting unemployment rates at play in Canada

Earlier this month, jobseekers’ optimism was marred by a string of layoffs: Sears Canada cut 700 jobs, Canada Bread closed two plants and between Best Buy Canada and Future Shop, another 900 jobs were cut.

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Meanwhile, a jobs report last week revealed that a staggering 21,900 jobs were lost in December and January. That’s the first setback in six months.

Right now, the country’s unemployment rate sits at seven per cent.

Judith Dutton was working in customer service and sales for Bell Mobility for four years until she lost her job. Her entire division – made up of 500 people – was outsourced to areas outside of Canada.

She’s been in the customer service industry for more than 40 years, she says. But finding a job has been tough.

“It’s been very hard because there’s so many people now with today’s economy who have lost so many jobs, so many areas have been outsourced,” she told Global News.

The job search has taken a toll on her health.

“It increased my blood pressure, it increased my anxiety. I was angry,” she said.

Protect your health in the face of job loss

Williams says Canadians can take extra measures to take care of their health during times of uncertainty. Exercise regularly, even if it’s brisk walking or a leisurely bike ride or take the stairs while you’re out.

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Taking on physical activity at least three or four days a week would reduce your risk and lessen stress levels.

Eat a healthy diet with fruits and vegetables.

And work on your relationships with friends and family, Williams said.

“Reach out to people to nurture your relationships with other people. People who have more social support, more supportive relationships are more resistant to the effects of stress,” he said.


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