Unemployment hurts more than your wallet—it may also damage your heart.

According to a new study, job loss poses as big a threat as smoking, high blood pressure and other negative conditions for the heart. The researchers analyzed data on more than 13,000 men and women aged 51 to 75 taking part in an ongoing health and retirement survey partly sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. Since 1992 until 2010, participants have been interviewed every two years about their employment and health. Participants were asked about their job history, employment status and recent heart attacks. People who have had heart attacks before the study were excluded.

Nearly 70 percent had at least one job loss, or period of unemployment after working at a job, and at least 10 percent had four or more before and/or during the study period.

There were 1,061 heart attacks during the study. Those with at least one job loss were 22 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those who never lost a job. Those with at least four job losses had a 60 percent higher risk than those with none. Men and women faced equal risks.

The analysis does have several limitations. While the data show periods of employment, it does not indicate whether people were fired, laid off, out of work while switching jobs or had voluntarily left a job. The researchers considered all of these “job losses,” but it’s likely the greatest risks for heart attacks were from being fired or laid off, said researcher Matthew Dupre, an assistant professor at Duke University and lead author of the study. Retirement was not considered unemployment and the increased odds weren’t huge.

Sarah Burgard, a University of Michigan researcher who has studied the relationship between job loss and health, called the research solid, but also said it would be important to know the reason for unemployment.

“There probably are differences in consequences of job loss when it’s voluntary or more or less expected and when it comes as a sudden shock,” said Burgard, who was not involved in the study.

Theories insist that the stress of losing a job could trigger a heart attack in people with clogged arteries or heart disease. In addition, the unemployed lose health insurance and access to medical care that can help keep them healthy, Burgard said.

Even though the odds linked with job loss weren't huge, many participants already faced increased risks for a heart attack because of obesity, high blood pressure or lack of exercise.

The analysis appeared in Monday's Archives of Internal Medicine.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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