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University of Iowa News Release

Release: February 3, 2003

UI Professor Says Household Tasks Can Be Problematic For Female Cardiac Patients

Returning too soon to traditional household tasks, such as cleaning and laundry, may be contributing to poor health and even death among female cardiac patients. New University of Iowa research suggests that one reason women tend to experience greater negative consequences from heart attacks is that they are too eager to get back to their regular domestic routines. The danger is exacerbated when these tasks are performed in the morning in a concentrated fashion.

Two recent studies led by Jerry Suls, a professor of psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, suggest that the type and duration of the household chores that typically fall to women leads them to overexert themselves more often than men following a cardiac event like a heart attack.

In one study male and female cardiac patients and their spouses responded to surveys approximately every 4 weeks during the 6 months post hospital discharge. The surveys asked about the allocation of household responsibilities, such as cleaning, cooking, shopping, repairs, and employment. In a second study, only involving post-heart-attack patients, detailed activity logs were completed at periodic intervals.

The results indicated that patients and their spouses tended to assume household responsibilities along traditional gender-based lines, with women, whether as patients or caregivers, taking on domestic chores and men handling repairs and yard work. Suls reports that while the total level of energy expended on each type of task was similar, women tended to concentrate their activity in the morning hours while men distributed their work through the day. Women also reported activities requiring continuous and disproportionate use of the arms, such as washing dishes, followed by drying and putting away overhead, wiping counters and sweeping the floor. This type of isometric activity poses a risk of complications in the initial weeks of recovery.

The studies also showed that when women experienced cardiac symptoms during their regular chores they were more likely than men to ignore those symptoms.

"This has implications for how physicians and medical staff advise cardiac patients about resuming normal activities," Suls said. "We're not saying women should be totally inactive-exercise is important, but we need to be clearer about what constitutes too much and too early."

Suls says this is a good argument for patients participating in organized cardiac rehabilitation, where their exertion levels can be monitored. However, he acknowledges that access can be a hurdle in a rural state like Iowa.
"Women are less likely to go to rehab and more likely to drop out-often saying they don't have time because of responsibilities at home," Suls said. "At the very least, women should be cautioned that when they resume household activities, those tasks should be distributed throughout the day. We believe that our evidence reinforces the idea that traditional gender roles have impact on health outcomes."

Suls' research team includes Katherine Lemos and Mary Jenson in the UI psychology department. Also joining in these studies were Ellen Gordon, M.D., and Patricia Lounsbury, R.N., both with UI Hospitals and Clinics. Both studies were funded by the American Heart Association. For more information or a copy of either article, contact Suls at or (319) 335-0569.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACT(S): Media -- Mary Geraghty Kenyon, 319-384-0011, Program Contact: Jerry Suls, 319-335-0569,