Two new university studies have shown that marital arguments have a direct impact on hardening of the arteries in both men and women, and one spouse with a debilitating illness can cause an earlier death for the other.
By Carol Johnson
In a study conducted by psychology researchers at the University of Utah, some 150 healthy married couples helped to determine if arguments have a noticeable effect on calcification of the arteries that supply the heart muscle. The couples, mostly in their 60s, were recruited through newspaper ads and a polling firm. Each couple was paid $150 for their participation and the husbands and wives received a free CT scan of their hearts.
The study showed that hardening of the coronary arteries is more likely to occur in wives, when their husbands demonstrate hostility during arguments. Hardening of the arteries is more common in husbands when either spouse acts in a controlling manner during arguments. Study author Tim Smith, professor of psychology at the university, explained the purpose of the study by saying, “Women pay more attention to friendliness vs. hostility, and are more concerned when it’s out of line than are men. Men are more interested in issues of control in their lives.”
Each of the couples was asked to select a topic that was an ongoing source of debate in their marriage. They were then seated in comfortable chairs facing each other, and videotaped talking to each other about a variety of problems-money, children, in-laws, household chores, etc. Some of the couples engaged in “quite pointed” arguments, said Smith, despite knowing that they were being taped. Some couples were so hostile toward each other that researchers suggested they seek counseling.
Graduate students watching the tapes coded each conversation to indicate the extent to which the discussion was friendly or hostile, and submissive vs. dominant. For example, comments such as “You can be so stupid,” or “you’re too negative” were coded as hostile and dominant. But a comment such as “that’s a good idea” was coded to be warm and submissive.
Based on the resulting scores for their conversations, each couple was ranked accordingly, as to which spouse was more hostile, dominant, controlling, or submissive. Two days later, each couple underwent their CT scans, and doctors used a standard scale to score each person’s level of coronary artery calcification, factoring out traditional risk factors such as weight, cholesterol levels, and family history.
The results of the study were dramatic, and definitely said something about the quality of each couple’s relationship. Matthew Sylvan, director of Psychocutaneous Medicine at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital’s department of dermatology in New York City, says that the tenor of a marriage affects the health of both partners. “The link between the mind and body is something I believe in strongly, and see all the time,” he said.
While studies such as this one need more research and data to support the original findings, Silvan said he wasn’t surprised at the resulting conclusion that, men and women react physically to their marriages in different ways. “For a long time people thought of the mind and body as separate,” he said. “And more and more they see they aren’t separate. The two mutually influence each other.”
The mutual effect of marriage on the health of husbands and wives was further underscored by another recent study. The study, conducted by Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania and backed by the National Institute of Health, analyzed Medicare records from a national sample of more than half a million elderly couples over a 9-year period.
The purpose of the study was to examine couples to see what health risks there might be for one spouse when the other is gravely ill or dies. Previous studies have shown that the spouses of sick people are more at risk of illness and death themselves, a phenomenon sometimes called “the caregiver burden” or the “bereavement effect.” This study was unique in that researchers examined an extraordinarily large group of couples, and also quantified the risk associated with a range of specific illnesses.
The results of the study showed that the risk is a considerable one. Men were 4.5% more likely than usual to die on any given day after their wives were hospitalized; women with sick husbands were almost 3% more likely to die. The researchers say that these risks increase because of the lack of companionship, practical help, income and other support that can happen when a spouse gets sick. If the sick spouse then dies, the partner’s risk of death by any means-accidents, suicide, infections, or pre-existing conditions-rises by 21% for men and 17% for women.
The partner’s death risks were highest in the six months after the spouse was hospitalized for a severely disabling problem. Older people were especially vulnerable. Researchers have suggested that the effects of a spouse’s illness on the partner should be taken into account by families, social service workers, and doctors. “You can die of a broken heart not just when a partner dies, but when your partner falls ill,” said Harvard Medical School chief researcher Dr. Nicholas Christakis. “What it means to me is that people are interconnected, and so their health is interconnected.”