Heart : Heart Disease Tied to Spouses' Relationships

A study from researchers at the University of Utah shows that the ways in which your spouse is supportive, and how you support your spouse, can actually have significant bearing on your overall cardiovascular health.

The findings reveal that when both partners perceive the support they get from each other as ambivalent, that is, sometimes helpful and sometimes upsetting, each partner's levels of coronary artery calcification (CAC) tend to be particularly high, Health Day reported.

"There is a large body of epidemiological research suggesting that our relationships are predictors of mortality rates, especially from cardiovascular disease," explains Bert Uchino, psychological scientist of the University of Utah. "But most prior work has ignored the fact that many relationships are characterized by both positive and negative aspects, in other words, ambivalence."

The researchers instructed 136 older couples (63 years old, on average) to fill out questionnaires measuring their overall marriage quality, as well as their perceived support from their spouse. Specifically, they indicated how helpful or how upsetting their spouse was during times when they needed support, advice, or a favor. The researchers found that about 30% of individuals viewed their partner as delivering positive support, whereas 70% viewed their partner as ambivalent, sometimes helpful and sometimes upsetting.

Using a CT scanner to check for overall calcification in the participants' coronary arteries, the researchers found that CAC levels were highest when both partners in the relationship viewed each other as ambivalent. When only one partner felt this way, the risk was significantly less. The effect was independent of gender, meaning that these associations were comparable for husbands and wives.

"The findings suggest that couples who have more ambivalent views of each other actively interact or process relationship information in ways that increase their stress or undermine the supportive potential in the relationship," says Uchino. "This, in turn, may influence their cardiovascular disease risk."

While Uchino and colleagues can't be certain that mutual ambivalence causes higher levels of CAC, since the study didn't follow participants over time, the results do provide the initial evidence necessary for longitudinal studies on relationship support and cardiovascular health.

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