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Peterson, others study link between unemployment, increased risk of heart attack

November 26, 2012

Unemployment may be associated with an increased risk of heart attack, according to a new study by DCRI and Duke researchers published online this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study was conducted by the DCRI’s Matthew Dupre, PhD, and Eric Peterson, MD, MPH, along with Linda George, PhD, from the Duke Department of Sociology and Guangya Liu, PhD, from the School of Law.

There has been little research on the effects of social stressors, and unemployment in particular, on cardiovascular health. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, most Americans will have experienced at least one period of joblessness by the time they reach middle age. Earlier studies have suggested that unemployment at older ages could increase the risk of an acute heart attack, but data are limited on the connection between unemployment and cardiovascular health at all ages.

In this project, the researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing prospective cohort study of American adults older than 50 that is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The final data set included information from 13,451 patients aged 51 to 75 who underwent biennial follow-up interviews between 1992 and 2010 and reported having a job at one point. Together, these patients experienced 1,061 acute heart attacks during this time.

In the study group, 14 percent of the individuals were unemployed at baseline, 69.7 percent had one or more cumulative job losses, and 35.1 percent had spent time unemployed. The researchers’ statistical analysis suggested that the risk of heart attack was significantly higher among the unemployed (hazard ratio [HR], 1.35) and that risks increased incrementally from one job loss (HR, 1.22) to four or more cumulative job losses (HR, 1.63) compared with no job loss. The risks for acute heart attack were “particularly elevated” within the first year of unemployment (HR, 1.27) but not thereafter.

The researchers noted that it is still unclear how unemployment will affect young adults years and decades later. More studies are needed, they said, to determine how this information can be used to target and treat vulnerable populations in the future.

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