Conducted by researchers at University College London and published in the October 8, 2007, issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, the study showed that people in negative relationships were 34 percent more likely to have a coronary event in the study’s 12-year follow-up.The association between negative relationships and coronary events was weaker but still significant – 25 percent – when researchers adjusted for such variables as negative personality traits and depression, and other factors that influence heart disease, such as age, obesity and smoking.
The study involved 9,011 British men and women who completed a questionnaire (either between 1989 and 1990 or between 1985 and 1988) about the quality of their primary relationships. More than 64 percent listed their spouse as their primary relationship; unmarried respondents listed close personal friends.
The questionnaire focused on the amount of emotional and practical support the respondents got from their spouse or close friend, and on their interactions with them. Questions included how much stress or worry the respondents felt their primary relationship had caused them in the past year, how much talking to that person about problems made situations seem worse, how much the respondent would have liked more practical help from that person, and how much more the respondent would have liked to confide in that person.
The study followed the respondents for an average of 12.2 years to see if they experienced fatal or non-fatal coronary events. Of the 8,499 individuals who provided sufficient information for analysis, 589 reported heart disease. None had any history of heart disease at the start of the study.
Those who had reported high negativity in their primary relationship – such as talking to their spouse or friend about problems made things seem worse – were 34 percent more likely to have a coronary event than those who had reported a low level of negativity.
The study found no association between heart disease risk and not confiding, or between heart disease risk and the level of practical or emotional support.
Also, gender and social status had no statistical significance.
What’s the conclusion? While an extensive body of past research links social relationships, including marriage, to better health and less cardiovascular disease, this study suggests that negative aspects of close relationships might be a more powerful predictor of health because of the emotional and physiological reactions they can cause.
The researchers go on to suggest that, because previous research shows that individuals tend to mentally “replay” negative encounters more than positive ones, negative exchanges in close relationships can continue to trigger emotional responses that are known to contribute to heart problems, such as worry, anxiety, hostility and anger.
“Given the cumulative ‘wear and tear’ these emotions have on the body,” the researchers write, “It is possible that negative aspects of close relationships are more important [considerations] for the health of individuals because of the power of negative close relationships to activate stronger emotions (worrying and anxiety) and the consequent physiological effects.”
Cooper University Hospital’s Chief of Psychiatry, Thomas S. Newmark, M.D., said the study further illuminates what medical science has known for a long time: the mind-body connection and the effects of mental or emotional stress on physical well-being.
“If you’re in a relationship that rankles in your mind, you’re paying the price with your health,” Dr. Newmark said. “Ongoing feelings and behaviors marked by conflict, criticism, blaming, ranting, raving, grudge-holding, embitterment, resentment and anger all take their toll as stress. Such acute and chronic stress no doubt increases the risk of serious heart problems, including heart arrhythmias, which are caused by the chemical release of epinephrine when someone is riled up.”
Ideally, said Dr. Newmark, people need to work on improving their relationships; but the important thing to remember for your own well-being, he said, is this: “Calm your mind and protect your heart.”