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Long work hours linked to rise in female disease risk

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Women who put in long hours for the bulk of their careers may be putting themselves at higher risk of life-threatening illnesses, including heart disease and cancer, according to US researchers.

Work weeks that averaged 60 hours or more over three decades appear to triple the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart trouble and arthritis for women, found a study by Ohio State University.

“Women in their 20s, 30s and 40s are setting themselves up for problems later in life”

Allard Dembe

The risk begins to climb when women put in more than 40 hours and becomes significantly worse above 50 hours, the researchers found.

In contrast, men with similarly tough work schedules appeared to fare much better, said the researchers in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Men who worked long hours had a higher incidence of arthritis, but none of the other long-term diseases. Those men who worked moderately long hours – 41 to 50 hours weekly – had lower risk of heart disease, lung disease and depression than those who worked 40 hours or fewer.

The researchers analysed data from interviews with almost 7,500 people born between 1957 and 1964, who were part of a US study called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Using the date, they looked at the relationship between serious disease and hours worked over a 32-year period.

They compared the average hours worked to the incidence of eight chronic diseases – heart disease, cancer (except skin cancer), arthritis or rheumatism, diabetes or high blood sugar, chronic lung disease including bronchitis or emphysema, asthma, depression and high blood pressure.

A minority of the full-time workers in the study put in 40 hours or fewer per week, while 56% worked an average of 41 to 50 hours; 13% an average of 51-60 hours, and 3% more than 60 hours.

Ohio State University

Long work hours linked to rise in female disease risk

Allard Dembe

Study lead author Allard Dembe, professor of health services management and policy, said: “Women – especially women who have to juggle multiple roles – feel the effects of intensive work experiences and that can set the table for a variety of illnesses and disability.

“People don’t think that much about how their early work experiences affect them down the road,” he said. “Women in their 20s, 30s and 40s are setting themselves up for problems later in life.”

He noted that because the data addressed conditions reported by age 40 or 50, the study showed only early-onset disease and did not shed light on the possible associations between long hours and lifetime risks, which could prove even more profound.

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