Researchers tracked 1200 businessmen for 30 years and found those who took less than three weeks off a year were 37% more likely to die young.
The doctors, from Helsinki University in Finland, said their findings highlight the danger of stress on the heart.
They found that men who were ordered to exercise or eat healthily saw their health deteriorate because it raised their anxiety levels. But this damaging impact was reversed if they took a holiday.
The doctors, presenting their findings at the European Society of Cardiology congress in Munich, said GPs should encourage us to take a break at the same time as giving out heart drugs or lifestyle advice.
Lead researcher Professor Timo Strandberg said: “Don’t think having an otherwise healthy lifestyle will compensate for working hard and not taking holidays. Vacations can be a good way to relieve stress.”
The study began in 1974 and involved more than 1200 middle-aged businessmen.
The team was surprised to find those given lifestyle advice and drugs were more likely to die young than those left to their own devices.
Strandberg said: “Men with shorter vacations worked more and slept less than those who took longer vacations. This stressful lifestyle may have overruled any benefit of intervention. We think the intervention may have had an adverse psychological effect on these men by adding stress to their lives. Drug treatment yes, but you must always keep lifestyle advice. The most important intervention to lengthen life is social.”
Strandberg joked that he had a vested interest because he took five weeks off last year.
Professor Joep Perk, spokesperson for the European Society of Cardiology, said people need to relax and enjoy their life. “Patients when they have a heart attack, they suddenly become fanatic about their lifestyle. There is a lot of stress, they run around.
“I sometimes wonder whether this is healthy, and this study shows the enormous stress of changing lifestyle may have a bad effect on some people.”