The Whitehall Study took place 40 years ago and famously revealed that men at the bottom of the pecking order at work (in this case Britain’s Civil Service) were at a higher risk of dying prematurely than those at the top – regardless of any other risk factors like obesity and smoking. These men had a higher risk of mortality from all causes, but the most likely was heart disease.
So, what was the biological explanation for this inequality? A popular theory suggested that the lack of control over their working lives and associated stress is what put their health at risk, although the way this worked on a physical level was unknown.
The way the body reacts to acute stress is known as the fight or flight response and involves the sudden release of adrenaline and cortisol, chemicals that among other things raise heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. But it appears that sustained or chronic stress is the culprit when it comes to harming health, increasing the risk of weight gain, depression and heart disease.
Since the Whitehall Study, scientists at the University College London have been following up to find out the link between stress and higher mortality rates. The latest study reveals that older men who have trouble returning to normal physiologically after stressful events show the hallmarks of accelerated cellular ageing, which could potentially put them at greater risk of heart disease.
The men found to have this abnormal response to stress were also found to be more likely to lack social support and score highly on measures of hostility and pessimism. The research itself involved 333 healthy men and women aged 54-76. Tests were carried out to measure markers for cellular ageing and physiological responses to stress. Through these tests it was found that men with abnormal responses to stress were more likely to have markers of cellular ageing.
Interestingly, the associations were not seen in women. The authors of the study were unable to explain this, however it is thought that oestrogen may have a part to play.
Research continues, however the argument for reducing stress levels and seeking help at an early stage is becoming more and more compelling.