Besides high unemployment, the U.S. is experiencing high rates of under-employment, with more people working part-time and earning less than they need to sustain themselves and their families.
Besides the economic ramifications, researchers at the University of California (UC) Davis say there appear to be health consequences as well. They found that employees earning the lowest wages have a higher risk of hypertension than workers with the highest wages, even if the high-wage jobs carry a lot of stress. The correlation between wages and hypertension was especially strong among women and workers under 45.
“We were surprised that low wages were such a strong risk factor for two populations not typically associated with hypertension, which is more often linked with being older and male,” said J. Paul Leigh, senior author of the study and professor of public health sciences at UC Davis. “Our outcome shows that women and younger employees working at the lowest pay scales should be screened regularly for hypertension as well.”
New focus of research
The study, published in the December issue of the European Journal of Public Health, is believed to be the first to isolate the role of wages in hypertension, which occurs when the force of circulating blood against artery walls is too high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hypertension affects approximately 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. and costs more than $90 billion each year in health-care services, medications and missed work days. It also is a major contributor to heart disease and stroke, both of which are leading causes of death and disability.
What's surprising is that hypertension has previously been assumed to afflict the stressed-out corporate executive, faced with the responsibilities of meeting profit projections or bearing other stressful burdens. But the UC study suggests it is the people working for them who are feeling the effects of the stress.
While there is a known association between lower socioeconomic status and hypertension, determining the specific reason for that association has been difficult, according to Leigh. Other researchers have focused on factors such as occupation, job strain, education and insurance coverage, with mixed results. Leigh’s study was the first to focus on wages and hypertension.
The role of wages
“By isolating a direct and fundamental aspect of work that people greatly value, we were able to shed light on the relationship between socioeconomic status and circulatory health,” said Leigh. “Wages are also a part of the employment environment that easily can be changed. Policymakers can raise the minimum wage, which tends to increase wages overall and could have significant public-health benefits.”
Leigh is not the first researcher to express concern that young people, especially, are not being adequately screened for high blood pressure. In November research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2012 found that adults 18-24 years old with high blood pressure were 28 percent less likely to be diagnosed during doctor visits than those 60 and older.
"These young patients come to the clinic and their blood pressure is recorded," said Heather Johnson, M.D., lead researcher of the study. "They have high blood pressure, but there's no documentation of a diagnosis."
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. While more prevalent in older Americans, about 29 percent of all U.S. adults have hypertension, according to American Heart Association statistics. About 11 percent of men and 7 percent of women 20-34 years old have high blood pressure.