Features February 2018 Issue

Can Marriage Affect Your Heart Risk?

A happy home makes for a happy heart, but if you are a man, recent research reveals that the ups and downs of marriage may increase your risk of heart disease.

As anyone who is married or partnered will tell you, relationships have their ups and downs. Now, a British study has found that these changes may impact a man’s cardiovascular disease risk over time.

married couple

© Lisa F. Young | Dreamstime

Research shows it may not be the quality of a relationship that influences heart health, but rather unpredictability.

Researchers who followed families for 19 years found that men in worsening relationships showed gradual increases in diastolic blood pressure. On the other hand, those in improving relationships showed decreases in LDL cholesterol and body-mass index (a measurement of obesity), compared with men in relationships that were consistently good or bad.

This was the first study to associate marriage quality with cardiovascular risk over time. The findings were consistent with a handful of smaller studies and appear, thankfully, to be modest.

“Most research in this area is equivocal,” says Scott Bea, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. “Some meta-analyses have found that good marital quality bodes well for good general health. However, the connection between improving relationships and improving health, or declining relationships and declining health, is not convincing.”

Maybe? Maybe Not

For the sake of argument, let’s say the findings are true. How could they be explained?

Perhaps a man’s blood pressure is influenced by feelings of stress or loneliness. These heart disease risk factors are common in faltering marriages and can affect women, as well.

“There is evidence that women with social stresses—which can include being in an unhappy marriage—may be inclined to develop cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Bea.

However, this wouldn’t explain why a changing relationship has a more profound physical effect on a man than a bad relationship.

Building Healthy Relationships

Without solid proof that a decaying relationship may ultimately give you a heart attack, let’s assume the opposite is true: A good relationship is tied to good heart health. What can you do to improve your marriage and your heart?

“Manage stressors and nurture your relationships,” Dr. Bea advises. “Men appreciate positive sentiments. Women need a strong social support group.”

Don’t forget to cultivate good habits as a couple. A different study revealed a higher risk of diabetes in husbands whose wives gained weight. Since couples tend to eat the same meals and have the same eating habits, both people are likely to suffer or benefit from their choices, so choose well.

“Individuals in good marriages are likely to engage in healthy behaviors,” Dr. Bea says. 

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