Men’s health more vulnerable to stressful life events

Although stressful life events may affect the health of both men and women, men are more vulnerable, according to a recent study of nearly 3,000 people in Finland.

The study, published in the September/October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, looked at whether psychological problems (such as anxiety and mental distress) and health-risk behaviors (such as smoking and alcohol use) underpin the health effects of life events.

Four major life events were studied: the death or serious illness of a family member; being a victim of physical, psychological or sexual violence; severe interpersonal conflict such as divorce; and severe financial difficulties caused by job loss, for example.

“A large body of research suggests that there is a link between stressful life events and later health problems,” says the study’s lead author, Mika Kivimäki, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at the University of Helsinki in Finland. “We found that all the event categories studied were associated with increased psychological problems and impaired health. The death and serious illness of family members … were rated the most severe events.”

The study included 2,991 full-time municipal employees who participated in the larger Finnish “8-Town Study,” a longitudinal study exploring links between psychosocial factors and health. Twenty-seven percent of the study participants were male and 73 percent were female.

When they entered the study, all of the participants were deemed healthy because they had not taken any sick days from work during 1995. In November 1997, each person was asked about stressful life events, psychological factors and health-risk factors during the previous 12 months. The number of sick days taken from work in 1998 was then used to gauge changes in health. Maternity leave and work absences to care for a sick child were not included in the sick days.

The study results support other research findings suggesting that major life events are associated with increased psychological problems and impaired health.

The results also reinforce previous findings that men are more affected by major life events than women. Among men, as measured by sick days, life events were associated with psychological problems and increased alcohol abuse and smoking, as well subsequent health problems. Among women, however, life events were associated with psychological problems and smoking but not sickness absence.

“Analyses of those who had a stressful event showed smaller social support networks for men than women,” the authors write. “Social support might help in coping with life events and thus provide a partial explanation for men’s higher vulnerability.”

The study was funded by grants from the Finnish Work Environment Fund, the Academy of Finland, the Finnish Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Finnish Local Government Pensions Institution and the participating towns.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT INFORMATION:
Health Behavior News Service: 202-387-2829 or www.hbns.org.
Psychosomatic Medicine: Contact Victoria White at 352-376-1611, ext. 5300, or visit www.psychosomaticmedicine.org.

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