UCL News


Sense of injustice causes heart disease

15 May 2007

A team of researchers from UCL Epidemiology & Public Health have shown that people who feel they are treated unfairly are at heightened risk of experiencing heart problems.

5726 men and 2572 women from 20 civil service departments in London participated in the research as part of the long-term Whitehall II study.

The findings, published in the current issue of the 'Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health', show that repeated experiences of injustice in different areas of life - family, the workplace or society in general - may produce negative stress-related reactions that, in the long term, increase the risk of a heart attack.

The participants were asked to score their responses to the statement: "I often have the feeling that I am being treated unfairly" on a scale of one to six, with one being 'strongly disagree' and six being 'strongly agree'.

Their mental and physical health was tracked for an average of 11 years, using validated health and quality-of-life surveys and data on ill health and death.

During the monitoring period, there were 528 new cases of fatal and non-fatal heart attack and angina in people who had had no signs of heart disease when the study began.

Just under 3,000 people felt they were unfairly treated, and when all the figures were adjusted to take account of traditional coronary risk factors, gender, age, socioeconomic position, chronic work stress and unfair treatment at work the results showed that a heightened sense of injustice directly corresponded to risk of a heart attack or angina.

People who scored five or six were 55 per cent more likely to have serious heart disease as those who did not feel they were unfairly treated and twice as likely to have it as those who scored one or two. Participants in lower socioeconomic positions and women were more likely to be exposed to everyday acts of injustice.

Lead author Dr Roberto De Vogli (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health) commented: "Although people may consider fair what is unfair and vice versa according to some subjective expectations, adjustment for a personality characteristic such as hostility did not reduce the effect of unfairness on heart disease. I understand that this is a long shot, but the key message is that we must try to promote fairness in society."

Image: Lead author Dr Roberto De Vogli