Long-term psychological stress is more likely to lead to a physical ailment in women than men, according to new research.
Medical investigators at the Sahlgrenska Academy in Sweden who examined the health records of 1,500 women found that one in five middle-aged women experienced constant or frequent stress during the last five years. In four out of 10 cases, long-term stress led to some form of physical complaint, most often aches and pain in their muscles and joints.
The results also showed 28 percent suffered from headaches or migraines, and about the same percentage reported gastrointestinal complaints.
"Even when the results have been adjusted for smoking, [body mass index], and physical activity, we can see a clear link between perceived stress and an increased incidence of psychosomatic symptoms," said Dominique Hange, researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg.
The study, published in the International Journal of General Medicine, showed more than 40 percent of women who experienced long-term stress but who did not report any related health problems when the study began in 1968 had developed muscular and joint pain, headaches, and/or gastrointestinal problems in the years afterward.
"Since 1968, women's lifestyles have changed in many ways," said Hange. "For example, many more women now work outside the home. Naturally, these changes can affect the experience of stress. But although we've used exactly the same question ever since 1968, we can't take it for granted that the term 'stress' has exactly the same meaning today. It might also be more socially accepted today to acknowledge one's experience of stress."
But the researchers found no clear signs that stress leads to an increased risk of an early death.
"The most important conclusion is that single women, women who do not work outside the home and women who smoke are particularly vulnerable to stress," said Hange. "Here, we see a greater need for preventive measures from society."
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