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Supportive Mate a Good Match for Your Heart

Small study of couples found helpfulness seems associated with lower levels of calcium build-up in arteries

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Alan Mozes

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Feb. 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Every Valentine's Day, heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates fly off the shelves as couples express their love for each other, but a new study suggests that a supportive spouse may be the real key to a happy and healthy heart.

A new investigation that combined CT scans with survey results revealed that people who feel their partner is always helpful in times of difficulty seemed to have lower levels of an early sign of heart disease. It's called "coronary artery calcification" -- a build-up of calcium in the artery walls.

By contrast, couples that viewed each other as unreliably "ambivalent" -- sometimes helpful, sometimes not -- tended to have higher levels of coronary artery calcification.

The study authors noted that their finding is preliminary, and will require much more follow-up before being able to draw a direct cause-and-effect link between coronary artery status and spousal support.

"It is certainly possible that part of the reason why ambivalent marriages are associated with greater cardiovascular risk is because of health behavior changes, such as smoking or exercise patterns" that shift when spousal support is found wanting, study author Bert Uchino acknowledged. "Having good-quality relationships are thought to increase our motivation to care for oneself, so having an ambivalent marriage may decrease one's motivation to eat healthy or exercise."

"However, we believe that this may only explain a very small part of what is going on, as we directly accounted for health behaviors and other indicators such as cholesterol levels, and our results still hold," Uchino said. "Thus, we believe that these results primarily reflect the stressful nature and lack of support when in a marriage where both parties view each other as ambivalent."

Uchino, a psychological scientist with the department of psychology and health psychology at the University of Utah, reported the findings this month in the online issue of Psychological Science.

The authors focused on 136 heterosexual couples in the Salt Lake City region. The average age for participants was 63, and the average length of marriage was about 36 years. None of the men or women had any history of heart disease, and nearly all (about 97 percent) were white.

All participants completed questionnaires to get a handle on perceptions regarding both overall marriage quality and spousal behavior at those times when one or the other felt they needed support, advice or a favor.

The result: Roughly 30 percent described their spouse was solidly supportive, while 70 percent felt responses to their requests for support were unpredictably helpful or upsetting, depending.

As for the physical findings, CT scans revealed that coronary artery calcification levels rose the most when two partners both felt ambivalent about the other's support.

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