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Til Stress Do Us Part: Marriage Angst Can Be Hard On Your Heart

This article is more than 5 years old.

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Marriage is hard even in the best of circumstances. But new research suggests that if things are particularly hard, the stress can take a toll on your heart — especially if you're older and female.

In a study published this week in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, researchers found that older couples in bad marriages have a higher risk for heart disease compared to those in good marriages. This link between the quality of a marriage and the risk of heart-related problems, such as high blood pressure, is even more pronounced among female spouses.

“The strain and stress from the marital relationship has a strong negative effect on people’s heart,” said Hui Liu, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University and the study’s lead author. “If the marriage is very stressful, it’s really hard on your heart.”

Liu, along with co-author Linda Waite of the University of Chicago, analyzed data from an ongoing nationally representative project that followed nearly 1,200 older men and women, ages 57 to 85, for a period of five years.

After comparing participants at the beginning of the study to the end of the five-year follow-up period, they found a significant link between an increase in negative marital quality with higher risk of hypertension among women. Not-so-hot marriages were marked by less spousal support and with husbands and wives spending less time with each other.

“The effect of marriage quality on cardiovascular risk is stronger for women than for men. It also becomes stronger as people get older,” Liu said during an interview. “We think marriage is one of the social factors that may affect the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

High blood pressure and rapid heart rate were among many factors the researchers used to assess the risk for heart disease.

“Even among those very old people who have been married for many, many years, we still see the effects of negative marriage quality,” Liu said. She suggested that improvements to a long-married couple's relationship might offer a boost to the health of their hearts.

From the news release:

The findings suggest the need for marriage counseling and programs aimed at promoting marital quality and well-being for couples into their 70s and 80s, said...Liu

"Marriage counseling is focused largely on younger couples," said Liu... "But these results show that marital quality is just as important at older ages, even when the couple has been married 40 or 50 years."

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