According to research in Finland among 942 men, feeling like a failure or having an uncertain future can speed up the process of artherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. That, in turn, can lead to heart attacks or strokes.
The study found that people who reported high levels of "hopelessness" had a 20 per cent greater increase in the hardening of their blood vessels. "This is the same magnitude of increased risk that one sees in comparing a pack-a-day smoker to a non-smoker," said Dr Susan Everson of the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, California, who analysed the results, published today in the American Heart Association's official journal.
The study backs up the idea that mental attitudes can have definite physical effects. Dr Everson said it supports "the long-held belief that giving up hope has adverse physical and mental consequences".
The study asked the men to rate their feelings of hopelessness on a three- point scale, of low, moderate or high. Ultrasound pictures then examined the men's blood vessels to determine the extent of artery narrowing caused by artherosclerosis.
No clear explanation is offered for why worrying should increase hardening - which is caused by the accumulation of fat, cellular waste products, cholesterol and calcium on the walls of blood vessels, and reduces their resiliency.
Nor is it clear whether the effects are reversible, and whether smiling despite feeling gloomy can make up for years of long faces.
But Dr Everson hopes to set up a study to investigate whether feeling hopeless - about job or career prospects, or life in general - could also affect the immune system.
The news appears to leave workers in the modern world with few comfortably healthy niches. Last year, a Danish study of 2,465 bus drivers over seven years found that workload - as measured by the intensity of traffic on the drivers' routes - was the factor most strongly associated with death or admission to hospital with a heart attack. The incidence of death and hospitalisation in those with higher workloads was more than twice that in the group with low workloads.
The British Medical Journal warned at the time that "overwork can kill". But now it seems that worrying about work - or lack of it - can be bad too.
Dr Everson said that more research is needed to determine what mechanisms and background underlie the latest findings. "We don't know, for example, whether some of these people had always felt like this. You can imagine that if you felt that way for a long time then it might become a structure of your life."
It is known that stress such as depression and anxiety can affect the production of various body hormones. "These factors may be at play in individuals who are highly hopeless," she said. More work would be needed to identify "social, psychological and physiological factors that lead to hopelessness, as well as the factors that may alleviate it."Reuse content