Social Ties Guard Against Heart Disease

Marriage, Friends Help Reduce Classic Heart Disease Risk Factors

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 8, 2004 (New Orleans) -- Wedded bliss has its rewards: Being married and having a strong social network may help protect against heart disease, a new study suggests.

The study of nearly 15,000 men and women shows that those who have a spouse, go to church, join social clubs, and have a lot of friends and relatives have significantly lower blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors than unmarried loners.

People who are married and have a strong social network are also less likely to smoke than their unmarried, less social counterparts, says Chris J. Armstrong, PhD, research associate in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Men seem to get an added bonus from taking a trip to the altar: "Married men with strong social support are also more likely to engage in physical activity, though this doesn't hold true for women," Armstrong tells WebMD.

High blood pressure and smoking are classic risk factors for heart disease, while physical activity can help ward off the nation's No. 1 killer.

For the study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA), the researchers interviewed nearly 15,000 Minnesotans between 1990 and 2002. Participants were asked about their marital status, church attendance, membership in social clubs such as the PTA, bridge club, or runner's club, and how many friends and relatives they had to help them through the good and bad times. All the men and women also underwent a physical exam looking at risk factors for heart disease.

Though the study was not designed to look at how family and social ties protect against heart disease, Armstrong says he suspects that "at least as far as smoking [goes], spousal and peer pressure are involved."

Coronary heart disease is the single largest killer of American men and women, responsible for more than one in five deaths in the U.S. in 2001, according to the AHA. About every 26 seconds an American will suffer a coronary event such as a heart attack, and about every minute, someone will die from one.


Importance of Social Ties

Raymond J. Gibbons, MD, the Arthur and Gladys D. Gray professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., tells WebMD that the new research is one of a series of recent studies showing that social support in general and marriage in particular may be important for our heart health.

Another study presented at the meeting, for example, shows that married people who receive implantable defibrillators to correct heart disease due to abnormal heart rhythms have significantly less anxiety and depression than those who live alone.

Although the subject of a flurry of recent reports, the connection between social support and heart health has probably always been there: It was just a matter of looking for it, says Tim Gardner, MD, professor of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"We haven't looked at the impact of behavior on health as much as we should," he says. "Especially within the scientific community, the emphasis has been on new drugs."

But health conditions such as obesity are actually both a medical problem and a behavioral problem, Gardner says.

"We need to pay more attention to the behavioral aspects of our health," he tells WebMD.

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SOURCES: American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2004, New Orleans, Nov. 7-10, 2004. Chris J. Armstrong, PhD, research associate, division of epidemiology and community health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Raymond J. Gibbons, MD, Arthur and Gladys D. Gray professor of medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Tim Gardner, MD, professor of surgery, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. American Heart Association.
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