Marriage Stress Hurts the Heart

Dec. 14, 2000 -- Can a troubled marriage increase your risk of heart problems? A new study by researchers at the University of Toronto suggests that it can.

Just as job stress has been linked to heart damage and high blood pressure, the study shows that people who reported problems with their live-in relationships had decreased heart function three years later, and some had increases in blood pressure.

"It was better to avoid your spouse if you had a bad marriage," says lead researcher Brian Baker, MD. "The reverse is also the case. In three-quarters of the sample, if they had a good marriage, it was better to be with their spouse." Baker is an associate professor at the University of Toronto and a cardiovascular psychiatrist at the University Health Network.

The findings, which appear in a recent issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, back up other research showing that supportive people and even pets can modify your heart health for the better.

The researchers studied more than 100 people who were living with a partner and had mild hypertension, or high blood pressure, at the start of the study. The participants, whose average age was 47, filled out a detailed questionnaire on their marriages. Blood pressure was measured and heart function was examined using a device called an echocardiogram.

Three years later, the quality of marriage and amount of contact with spouses were linked to either an increase or decrease in blood pressure. For example, those with happy marriages who had high contact with spouses were better off.

Troubled spouses, however, had a thickening of the left ventricle, one of the chambers of the heart. This thickening is associated with decreased heart function and other heart-related problems.

"It's thought that because the blood pressure is raised for a period of time, the heart has to pump harder and so it becomes thicker," Baker tells WebMD. "In other words, if your marriage was good, your left ventricle was thinner. If it was bad, it was thicker.

He adds that further studies must be done to confirm these results and to compare findings in people with normal blood pressure. If the findings are reproduced, there may be implications regarding the way people are treated.

"The ultimate implication is that [a patient's] marriage would be evaluated, and if there were a problem, then marital counseling may be considered as an option," Baker says.

According to Robert Petrella, MD, PhD, the fact that the heart was damaged by marital stress is significant. Petrella, who was not connected with the study, is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. "I'd support the fact that [marital stress] is another level of stressor," he tells WebMD.

Counseling or other efforts to modify stress in people are effective in lowering blood pressure, says Petrella, who is also secretary/treasurer of the Canadian Coalition for High Blood Pressure Prevention and Control. In people who've had heart attacks, such modifications will increase their longevity and reduce their risk of having another heart attack.

He suggests that further studies are needed to see if marital stress counseling can improve heart function, compared to a group not receiving treatment. "It's certainly food for thought, to look at some type of intervention," he says.