Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: Could working too much actually give me an irregular heartbeat later in life as a study I heard about suggests? I'm 55 and run my own tech support business, so I keep some really long and often irregular hours.

Dear Reader: The image of the "Type A" person who devotes long hours to the job has long been cemented into the national lexicon. The fact that this driven, goal-oriented temperament is considered admirable, if not an outright attribute, says a lot about us as a nation of workers. But the results of a recent study remind us that this kind of single-mindedness can come at a price.

Previous research has connected long working hours to an increased risk of having a stroke or developing coronary artery disease. Now, according to a paper published in the European Heart Journal last summer, people who work 55 hours or more per week also have a greater chance of experiencing atrial fibrillation as the years go on. This irregular heartbeat, which feels fluttery and is often quite rapid, means the electrical signals that prompt the heart have gone haywire. Rather than a controlled rhythm and sequence that allows the upper chambers of the heart to move blood as efficiently as possible, AFib is an ineffectual spasm that is associated with a rise in the risk of heart-related complications and stroke.

In this study, researchers looked at health data from about 85,500 working women and men from Finland, Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom. None of the study participants had a history of atrial fibrillation. As each participant entered the study, the number of hours that they worked per week was noted. At the end of about 10 years, each study participant was evaluated again. Using data collected from electrocardiograms, hospital and pharmacy records, as well as death certificates, researchers found 1,061 new cases of atrial fibrillation. For the group as a whole, this translated to 12.4 new cases of AFib per 1,000 people. However, when researchers looked at study participants who spent long hours at work, the incident rate rose to 17.6 new cases of AFib per 1,000 people. That's an increased risk of 40 percent, according to the statistical analysis in the study.

Studies like this, which identify outcomes based on analysis of selected behaviors, point out a correlation. They do not suggest that the behavior is the cause. In the case of the participants who spent 55-plus hours working, lifestyle issues may have also played a role in their health outcomes. Not only did people who worked a lot report more depression and anxiety at the start of the study, they were more likely to be overweight, spend less time in leisurely pursuits, and reported more tobacco and alcohol use.

If your own work habits give you cause for concern, step back and see what you can change. You may not be able to cut your hours, but adding meditation and deep breathing into your daily routine can help with stress. Having a better diet, cutting out tobacco and adding regular exercise will also add to your overall quality of life.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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