Older Couples in Unhappy Marriages at Greater Risk for Heart Disease

Older couples in an unhappy marriage are at greater risk for developing heart disease than older couples in a happy marriage; and women are at greater risk than men, according to researchers at Michigan State University.

“The findings suggest the need for marriage counseling and programs aimed at couples in their 70s and 80s,” said lead investigator Hui Liu, a Michigan State University sociologist.

“Marriage counseling is focused largely on younger couples,” said Liu, associate professor of sociology. “But these results show that marital quality is just as important at older ages, even when the couple has been married 40 or 50 years.”

For the study, Liu analyzed five years of data on approximately 1,200 married men and women (ages 57-85 at the beginning of the study) who took part in the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project.

Participants answered survey questions about their marital quality and took lab tests. They also gave self-reported measures of cardiovascular health such as heart attacks, strokes, hypertension, and high levels of C-reactive protein in the blood.

The goal was to see whether there is a connection between marital quality and risk of heart disease over time, and whether this relationship varies by gender and/or age.

The findings show that a negative marriage (a criticizing or demanding spouse) has a stronger effect on heart health than positive marital quality (a supportive spouse). In other words, a bad marriage is more harmful to your heart health than a good marriage is beneficial.

“Also, the effect of marital quality on cardiovascular risk becomes much stronger with age. Over time, the stress from a bad marriage may stimulate increasingly more intense cardiovascular responses because of the declining immune function and increasing frailty that typically come with old age,” Liu said.

“Interestingly, marriage quality has an even stronger effect on women’s heart health than it does on men’s. This may be because women tend to internalize negative feelings, and so are more likely to feel depressed and develop cardiovascular problems,” Liu said.

In turn, heart disease leads to a decline in marital quality for women, but not for men. This supports the longstanding observation that wives are more likely to take care of sick husbands, while husbands are less likely to take care of sick wives.

“In this way, a wife’s poor health may affect how she assesses her marital quality, but a husband’s poor health doesn’t hurt his view of marriage,” Liu said.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Aging, is published online in theĀ Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Source: Michigan State University

Unhappy elderly couple photo by shutterstock.