The Public Health Agency of Canada has taken major steps to mitigate the damage of work-life conflict and stress. The Healthy Living Fund, Cardiovascular Health Awareness Program and a new national mental-health strategy, due to be completed in 2012, are all designed to combat conditions linked to stress, including high blood pressure, depression, gastroenteritis and hypertension.
But experts say that more direct action is needed.
Dr. Lupien says physicians should monitor stress and show patients how to control it, while Dr. Berkman at Harvard says the onus should be on governments to protect work-life balance just as it enforces occupational safety standards and non-smoking bylaws.
"We don't ask individuals to take sole control of those issues because we understand that they're more effectively managed at the state or federal level," she says. WHEN BIOLOGY TRUMPS AMBITION
Researchers insist there is no magic pill - the human stress response is, as McGill's Dr. Lupien points out, necessary for our survival, so it would be suicide to eliminate it.
But if we don't get our lives under control, learn to prevent our stress levels from rising, and deal with the causes of chronic stress, the hormonal cocktail released by the brain will continue to take its toll.
"People say they thrive on stress," Dr. Lupien says. "That may be true - they may enjoy it - but it doesn't mean it's not impacting you physically."
The pioneering Dr. McEwen feels the key is to realize that being too busy comes with a cost.
"People complain about how overwhelming their lives are, but they don't connect it in a biological sense with the problems they experience: eating too much, not sleeping well, not being physically active," he says. "So how do you get the attention of policy makers, business and the public?"
He suggests showing skeptics a magnetic-resonance image of two brains: one that's normal and one that belongs to someone suffering from chronic stress. In the latter, the hippocampus - the region responsible for memory formation and linked to Alzheimer's disease - will be visibly smaller.
"That might make them realize that their biological organs are paying a price. There comes a time for everybody when they have to take that seriously."