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When Marriage Can Hurt a Heart

Marital Strain Can Raise Risk of Death, Heart Disease
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WebMD Health News

Feb. 17, 2005 -- Marital strain is a home wrecker that can endanger the heart. So says a 10-year study of 3,000 men and women aged 18 to 77.

All participants were married or living in a "marital situation." The researchers collected data on marital discord. Health was tracked for a decade to see who developed heart disease or died of any cause during the study.

For both men and women, marital strain affected their health.

Marital Strain and the Married Couple

The worst health risk was seen in women who hushed up when conflicts arose with their spouse. They said they usually or always silenced themselves in such situations.

Those women might have thought they were keeping the peace, but they paid dearly for it. Women who kept mum in marital conflicts had four times the risk of dying during the study, compared with women who spoke their minds.

For men, emotional expression wasn't the issue. Instead, their hearts suffered when they saw their wives come home from work burdened by job stress.

"Men reporting that their wives' work was disruptive to their lives were 2.7 times more likely to develop heart disease," say the researchers, who included Elaine Eaker, ScD, of Wisconsin-based Eaker Epidemiology Enterprises. The findings were reported in Orlando, Fla., at the Second International Conference on Women, Heart Disease, and Stroke.

A Health Perk for Husbands

Married men were about half as likely as single men to die of any cause during the study. That finding held true after adjusting for blood pressure, body mass index, smoking, diabetes, and cholesterol.

Single men were more likely than husbands to be smokers, says Eaker, in a news release. Past studies have also shown a health advantage for married men.

For women, marital status wasn't linked to heart disease or dying. The connection emerged when Eaker used more contemporary measures of marital strain, such as "self-silencing" behavior.

What's a Couple to Do?

Learning to handle conflict and defuse stress is a healthy idea for everyone. Counseling can help with that, with therapists available for individuals and couples. Doctors may also want to ask their patients about stress and make counseling referrals as needed, says Eaker.

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