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In the following article, the term cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) refers to organic and functional disorders of the heart and circulatory system, including the resultant damage to other organ systems, which are classified under numbers 390 to 459 in the 9th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) (World Health Organization (WHO) 1975). Based essentially on international statistics assembled by the WHO and data collected in Germany, the article discusses the prevalence of CVDs, new disease rates, and frequency of deaths, morbidity and disability.

Definition and Prevalence in the Working-Age Population

Coronary artery disease (ICD 410-414) resulting in ischaemia of the myocardium is probably the most significant CVD in the working population, particularly in industrialized countries. This condition results from a constriction in the vascular system that supplies the heart muscle, a problem caused primarily by arteriosclerosis. It affects 0.9 to 1.5% of working-age men and 0.5 to 1.0% of women.

Inflammatory diseases (ICD 420-423) may involve the endocardium, the heart valves, the pericardium and/or the heart muscle (myocardium) itself. They are less common in industrialized countries, where their frequency is well below 0.01% of the adult population, but are seen more frequently in developing countries, perhaps reflecting the greater prevalence of nutritional disorders and infectious diseases.

Heart rhythm disorders (ICD 427) are relatively rare, although much media attention has been given to recent instances of disability and sudden death among prominent professional athletes. Although they can have a significant impact on the ability to work, they are often asymptomatic and transitory.

The myocardiopathies (ICD 424) are conditions which involve enlargement or thickening of the heart musculation, effectively narrowing the vessels and weakening the heart. They have attracted more attention in recent years, largely because of improved methods of diagnosis, although their pathogenesis is often obscure. They have been attributed to infections, metabolic diseases, immunologic disorders, inflammatory diseases involving the capillaries and, of particular importance in this volume, to toxic exposures in the workplace. They are divided into three types:

  • dilative—the most common form (5 to 15 cases per 100,000 people), which is associated with the functional weakening of the heart
  • hypertrophic—thickening and enlargement of the myocardium resulting in relative insufficiency of the coronary arteries
  • restrictive—a rare type in which myocardial contractions are limited.


Hypertension (ICD 401-405) (increased systolic and/or diastolic blood pressure) is the most common circulatory disease, being found among 15 to 20% of working people in industrialized countries. It is discussed in greater detail below.

Atherosclerotic changes in the major blood vessels (ICD 440), often associated with hypertension, cause disease in the organs they serve. Foremost among these is cerebrovascular disease (ICD 430-438), which may result in a stroke due to infarction and/or haemorrhage. This occurs in 0.3 to 1.0% of working people, most commonly among those aged 40 and older.

Atherosclerotic diseases, including coronary artery disease, stroke and hypertension, by far the most common cardiovascular diseases in the working population, are multifactorial in origin and have their onset early in life. They are of importance in the workplace because:

  • so large a proportion of the workforce has an asymptomatic or unrecognized form of cardiovascular disease
  • the development of that disease may be aggravated or acute symptomatic events precipitated by working conditions and job demands
  • the acute onset of a symptomatic phase of the cardiovascular disease is often attributed to the job and/or the workplace environment
  • most individuals with an established cardiovascular disease are capable of working productively, albeit, sometimes, only after effective rehabilitation and job retraining
  • the workplace is a uniquely propitious arena for primary and secondary preventive programmes.


Functional circulatory disorders in the extremities (ICD 443) include Raynaud’s disease, short-term pallor of the fingers, and are relatively rare. Some occupational conditions, such as frostbite, long-term exposure to vinyl chloride and hand-arm exposure to vibration can induce these disorders.

Varicosities in the leg veins (ICD 454), often improperly dismissed as a cosmetic problem, are frequent among women, especially during pregnancy. While a hereditary tendency to weakness of the vein walls may be a factor, they are usually associated with long periods of standing in one position without movement, during which the static pressure within the veins is increased. The resultant discomfort and leg oedema often dictate change or modification of the job.

Annual incidence rates

Among the CVDs, hypertension has the highest annual new case rate among working people aged 35 to 64. New cases develop in approximately 1% of that population every year. Next in frequency are coronary heart disease (8 to 92 new cases of acute heart attack per 10,000 men per year, and 3 to 16 new cases per 10,000 women per year) and stroke (12 to 30 cases per 10,000 men per year, and 6 to 30 cases per 10,000 women per year). As demonstrated by global data collected by the WHO-Monica project (WHO-MONICA 1994; WHO-MONICA 1988), the lowest new incidence rates for heart attack were found among men in China and women in Spain, while the highest rates were found among both men and women in Scotland. The significance of these data is that in the population of working age, 40 to 60% of heart attack victims and 30 to 40% of stroke victims do not survive their initial episodes.


Within the primary working ages of 15 to 64, only 8 to 18% of deaths from CVDs occur prior to age 45. Most occur after age 45, with the annual rate increasing with age. The rates, which have been changing, vary considerably from country to country (WHO 1994b).

Table 3.1 [CAR01TE] shows the death rates for men and for women aged 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 for some countries. Note that the death rates for men are consistently higher than those for women of corresponding ages. Table 3.2 [CAR02TE] compares the death rates for various CVDs among people aged 55 to 64 in five countries.

Work Disability and Early Retirement

Diagnosis-related statistics on time lost from work represent an important perspective on the impact of morbidity on the working population, even though the diagnostic designations are usually less precise than in cases of early retirement because of disability. The case rates, usually expressed in cases per 10,000 employees, provide an index of the frequency of the disease categories, while the average number of days lost per case indicates the relative seriousness of particular diseases. Thus, according to statistics on 10 million workers in western Germany compiled by the Allgemeinen Ortskrankenkasse, CVDs accounted for 7.7% of the total disability in 1991-92, although the number of cases for that period was only 4.6% of the total (table 3.3 [CAR03TE]). In some countries, where early retirement is provided when work ability is reduced due to illness, the pattern of disability mirrors the rates for different categories of CVD.

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