People in unhappy marriages have a much higher risk of developing heart disease, new research suggests.
Researchers from Michigan State University examined health data relating to 1,200 adults in later life, ranking the subject’s overall heart health by assessing, amongst other factors, their blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and whether or not they had suffered a heart attack or stroke. The researchers then matched these with the state of the individual’s marriage, as reported by the respondents themselves in a series of interviews. They were asked how close they felt to their spouses, how happy their believed their relationships were and how demanding or critical they believed their spouses were.
Those whose marriages were unhappy were much more likely to show signs of heart disease, they concluded, and the affect was most pronounced in women.
A poor relationship had a stronger effect on heart health than any protective effects from positive relationships, said lead researcher Cathy Hui Liu.
“Married people seem healthier because marriage may promote health. But it’s not that every marriage is better than none. The quality of marriage is really important.”
Bad relationships cause stress and this has a cumulative physical affect over time, she noted.
“It’s not like you have contact with your spouse and the next day you have heart disease. It really takes time. That may explain why it’s stronger for older people. Your body will remember the effect.”
The findings suggest the importance of marriage and relationship counselling for older people, Hui Liu added. UK charity Relate stressed the importance of such support in a report published last summer.
The report was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour.