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Marriage Problems That Raise Your Heart Attack Risk

The health of your marriage can have a direct effect on your heart attack risk


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.)

When we speak of love, we usually refer to hearts aflutter, pulses raising. Love gone wrong results in a broken heart. Turns out that’s more than just metaphor. Marriages really do affect your heart health.

Marriage Can Protect Your Heart

A New York University study of more than 3.5 million Americans found that married people are less likely than singles, divorced or widowed people to suffer any type of heart or blood vessel problem. A study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology concurred: “Single living and/or being unmarried increases the risk of having a heart attack and worsens its prognosis both in men and women regardless of age.”

The study authors speculated on a number of reasons for the increased heart attack risk: that people with poor health are more prone to staying unmarried or getting divorced; that married people may enjoy higher levels of social support than the unmarried and that married people may get help faster after experiencing an event.

Married people seem healthier because marriage may promote health, but it's not that every marriage is better than none.

— Hui Liu, associate professor of sociology, Michigan State University

However, marriage quality counts. It’s not simply marriage good; single bad. “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,” says researcher Dr. Hui Liu, associate professor of sociology, Michigan State University.

Stressful Marriages And Your Heart

In a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, researchers found that spouses who experienced a higher level of positive marital qualities (moral support, caring actions) had a lower risk of cardiovascular event than those who experience lower marital qualities (lot of criticism and sniping). In addition, the negative effects had a more powerful effect than the positive. “This is not surprising to me,” says Liu.

“Negative attributes directly affect your heart by releasing stress hormones. Chronic stress hurts your heart. The stress may also cause unhealthy changes in health behavior such as smoking, overeating, lack of exercise.”

This effect got stronger as people aged. Older people lose a lot of friends, so the spouse becomes more important. Also older people’s health declines so they are physically more vulnerable to stress.

Unfortunately for women, researchers also found a gender difference: “The effect was found mostly among older women who are more sensitive to a relationship so they are more likely to feel the strain. Their health may be more affected,” explains Liu.

Marital Stress In Your Workplace

We already know that workplace stress can negatively affect domestic life. However, a study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine reported that the reverse is also true: A stressful marriage carries over into the workplace. Specifically, participants with more marital concerns reported greater stress throughout the day. There were no gender differences found. This means that elevated blood pressure caused by home issues stays present during the workday, increasing heart event risks.

“You can’t drop a wall between the two spheres,” says researcher Rosalind Barnett, senior scientist, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.

3 Heart-Saving Habits

1. Identify and work on marital stressors. You tend not to think about this as you get older because you think, “It’s been this way for 35 years; it’s not going to change now.”

But it is never too late to learn how to deal with conflict, so get your head out of denial and try marriage counseling. If your partner won’t go, go alone.

2. Exercise. “Studies show that it helps. If you are stronger, you can withstand the stress effects better,” says Liu.

3. Consider splitting up. “Sometimes it may be better to leave long-term, high-level conflict, if there is truly no way to solve or reduce it. Divorce can be a trauma, but that trauma does end eventually. You can come back to a new normal later,” says Liu.

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