Social Stress and Mortality: Reason to Chill


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Stress and conflict are associated with mortality. Image by SDRandCo

Stressful things happen.

We lose jobs. We have squabbles with friends and neighbors. We disagree with our spouses.

New research by  Dr. Lund and colleagues suggests that disagreements with others are more than annoyances.

Social stress can lead to an early death, particularly for those without employment.

Measuring Stress, Support and Conflict: The Research

In the spring of 2000, Dr. Rikke Lund of University of Copenhagen, and colleagues analyzed the social stress of 9870 men and women from 36 to 52 years old using The Danish Longitudinal Study on Work, Unemployment and Health.

The researchers asked subjects to rate the amount of worries, stress and conflict they experienced from a variety of relationships: those with neighbors, friends, partners, children and other family members, using a scale that ranged from feeling stressed, “‘always’. ‘often’‘, sometimes’, ‘seldom’, ‘never’, to ‘have none.’”

In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Lund notes that the measures are subjective.  “We measured both the stressful aspects and the supportive aspects of social relations by self-report.  I see no meaningful way by which others should judge for example worries felt.

Measuring Occupational Status and Mortality

Researchers classified respondents according to occupational status such as manual laborer or skilled laborer in line with “the standards of the Danish National Institute of Social Research.” Another category included disabled or unemployed individuals receiving “transfer income” or state sponsored income.  Measures of health status included chronic health conditions such as diabetes, and the researchers also measured mental health status and social support.

The study tracked the mortality of the individual respondents over eleven years using The Danish Cause of Death Registry, ending December 31, 2011.  In the eleven year time frame, 4% of the women and 6% of the men died.  According to the research, “The major causes of death were cancer (47%), CVD (14%), liver disease due to alcohol abuse (8%) and violent deaths (accidents, suicide) (7%)” – CVD refers to cardiovascular disease.

Worries, Stress, Conflict: The Mortality Connection

The results of the analysis uncovered the participants “who ‘always’…or ‘often’ experienced worries and demands from a partner had a higher mortality risk after adjustment for gender, social class, cohabitation status and prior hospitalisation than those who ‘seldom ’had this experience.”  Higher mortality was also found if the worries and stress was caused by children.

Stress from other family members, friends, and neighbors, however, did not show an effect.

Conflict from all parties was associated with higher mortality.

The Additive Hazard: Unemployment

Learn to manage stress. Image by SDRandCo

The impact of worries and stress was especially pronounced in those who were not employed, especially in men.

Lund et al. write, “the joint exposure to demands/worries from the partner and being outside the labour force” would lead to 462 additional deaths per 100,000 people.  Conflict combined with unemployment would add another 832 cases per 100,000.

Unlike joblessness, mortality was not found to be markedly different in those who had reported depression or less social support.

Implications of the Research: Chill Out

Dr. Lund summarized the key contributions of the research for Decoded Science, “I think it is important to note that the stressful aspects of our social relations seem to harm our health (in this case increase mortality risk), and that this is the case across a number of social roles ranging from partner to neighbours regarding conflicts.”

Dr. Lund continues, “Access to emotional support does unfortunately not seem to alleviate this association. We have identified those outside the labour market and to some degree men to experience an amplified mortality risk when they are exposed to stressful social relations.”

As an epidemiologist, Dr. Lund has no specific fix in mind for the problem of unemployment, conflict, and stress, but hopes that experts in other fields will use the research to make recommendations.

Don’t wait for the experts, learn to manage stress and conflict now. It could be a life-saver in the future.

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