Farm, food service jobs tied to heart disease risk

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Americans in certain lines of work, including transportation, food service and farming, may have a relatively high rate of risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and stroke, a new study finds.

At the other end of the spectrum, researchers found, health professionals, scientists and artists are among those with the lowest rates of so-called metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome refers to a collection of risk factors for diabetes, heart disease and stroke -- including abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and high triglycerides (another type of blood fat).

The syndrome is typically diagnosed when a person has three or more of those conditions, and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a major study, found that it can double the risk of heart attack and stroke.

In the new study, researchers found that among a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, workers in the farm industry and food service (other than waiters and waitresses) had the highest rates of metabolic syndrome -- at around 30 percent. That compares to an overall U.S. risk of about 22 percent, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Meanwhile, the risk factors were seen in roughly one-quarter of Americans in the transportation industry (truck drivers and other workers), construction and non-professional health services (excluding people such as doctors and nurses).

At the other end of the heart-risk spectrum were “writers, artists, entertainers and athletes” and the category that included scientists, engineers and architects, where the rates of metabolic syndrome were 8 percent to 9 percent. Doctors, nurses and other health professionals, meanwhile, had a rate of 12 percent.

The findings are published in the journal Diabetes Care.

In most cases, the job-related differences in metabolic syndrome appeared to be explained by differences in other associated factors -- including rates of obesity and smoking, exercise habits and race.

The exception was the transportation industry, where the work itself remained linked to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome even with the other factors taken into account.

The reasons for that finding are not clear, according to the researchers, led by Dr. Evelyn P. Davila of the University of Miami.

But, they note, the finding is in line with past studies that have found relatively higher rates of heart disease and stroke among truck drivers and other transportation workers compared with other lines of work.

It’s possible, Davila and her colleagues write, that factors not measured in this study -- such as irregular work schedules and poorer sleep habits, or job stress -- might help explain the link between transportation work and metabolic syndrome.

The findings, according to the researchers, do not prove that any given occupation increases or decreases the risk of metabolic syndrome. They do, however, suggest that people in certain job fields need to be especially aware of ways to control their risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. That includes watching their diets and getting regular exercise, not smoking and, if necessary, taking medication to control their blood pressure and cholesterol.

The researchers say the results also suggest that certain workplaces should be targeted for health-promotion programs that raise awareness of metabolic syndrome and how to help prevent it.

SOURCE: Diabetes Care, online June 28, 2010.