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Spouses of Heart Attack Victims May Have Similar Risks

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WebMD Health News

Nov. 10, 1999 (Atlanta) -- A heart attack can often prompt healthier behavior among its survivors, but such may not always be the case with the survivor's spouse. That's where a health care provider may be able to keep history from repeating itself, according to a new study.

The study, presented at the 72nd Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association in Atlanta, shows wives of men who have had heart attacks or are recovering from open heart surgery may be at high risk for fates similar to their husband's. The couples that have been together for awhile tend to share in the same bad habits and thus, increase both of their chances for heart disease. ''

Co-researcher Bernice C.Yates, PhD, RN, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing in Kearney, tells WebMD, "we found that the behavioral risk factors were similar between the spouses. They're engaging in similar behaviors in terms of smoking, being overweight or obese, dietary factors of fat or fiber, and exercise. So, it's telling us that the spouses may be at higher risk [of heart disease] just because of their shared family environment with the patient who has heart disease."

In fact, some wives even exhibit greater risk factors than their husbands. The researchers looked at 170 men, mostly white, middle class, and retired, who were recovering from a heart attack or open heart surgery. About two months after the heart attack or surgery, the men and their wives were given separate questionnaires on heart disease risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, cholesterol level, diet, and exercise.

Strong similarities were found between the couples in their smoking, eating and exercising habits, key behavioral risk factors for heart disease. Lead researcher Lynn C. Macken, also of the University of Nebraska and coordinator of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, Neb., tells WebMD she was most surprised by the results on the smoking issue. "The men quit," she says, "but twice as many women continued to smoke."

As Yates tells WebMD, after a coronary event, the patient is in a state of recovery, so "we typically talk to the spouse about the patient. We're implicitly assuming that the spouse is going to help the patient comply and [then] follow the lifestyle recommendations themselves, and they're not necessarily doing that."

Since the wife doesn't have the current heart condition her husband has, her drive to change bad habits may not be as strong. "We need to start talking to both the patient and the spouse, and hopefully reduce their risk for heart disease," Yates tells WebMD.

Other family members who perhaps incorporated unhealthy habits could also exhibit heart disease risk factors. Macken tells WebMD one ''can make the assumption" that "since we're looking at shared lifestyles", it could affect the whole "family environment."

And just because the wife hasn't had heart problems, Macken says, doesn't mean there's not trouble down the road. "The women were significantly younger than the men. The women were 58 years old [on average] and the men were 62 on average. So, when you project that out for 10 years, which is when you normally expect women to start showing signs of heart disease, then you can project it's going to be a bad outcome for them 10 years from now. It won't get better unless they do something now."

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