Unhappy Marriages May Lead to Unhealthy Hearts

Heart disease risk was higher in older women in bad marriages than in men or those in good marriages

(RxWiki News) A bad marriage can be a real heartbreaker. That’s the message from a new study that looked at how marriage affects the development of heart disease over time.

The authors of this study found that older people who thought they were in bad marriages were more likely to have poor heart health than those who were happy with their marriages. Older women faced a particularly high risk of heart problems in bad marriages.

These researchers noted that marriage counseling and other programs designed to improve the quality of marriages could also improve heart health — especially among older women.

"Marriage counseling is focused largely on younger couples," said lead study author Hui Liu, PhD, in a press release. "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."

The study was conducted by Dr. Liu, associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and Linda J. Waite, PhD, of the sociology department at the University of Chicago. Drs. Liu and Waite examined five years’ worth of data collected on 459 married women and 739 married men. The subjects were 57 to 85 years old at the beginning of the study.

These researchers collected information about marital quality from people who had been married at the beginning of the five-year period and had remained married for the length of the study.

Drs. Liu and Waite asked the participants questions about how close they felt to their spouses, whether they were happy in their relationships and whether they felt emotionally satisfied. They also asked whether people preferred to spend their free time with their spouse.

Researchers also asked whether the subjects could talk with their spouses when they were worried and whether they could rely on the spouse for help. Finally, they asked about negative aspects of the marriage, such as whether their spouses made too many demands, criticized them or got on their nerves.

The participants were also asked about heart health measures, such as whether they had ever had high blood pressure, a heart attack, heart failure or a stroke.

In addition, Drs. Liu and Waite collected data on the participants’ heart rates. A resting heart rate of more than 80 beats per minute over a long period of time has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and death.

Finally, the researchers collected blood to test C-reactive protein, or CRP. CRP is a sign of inflammation throughout the body — and a strong predictor of heart disease.

Based on the results, older women in bad marriages had an increased risk of heart disease in three areas: high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and events like heart attacks or strokes.

Among women who between 75 and 85 years old, in a bad marriage and not taking blood pressure medication, the risk of high blood pressure was 13.74 times higher for each unit of marital dissatisfaction. The researchers defined these units based on the participants' survey responses.

Women ages 75 to 85 with bad marriages were 3.46 times more likely than those in good marriages to have a rapid heart rate. Odds of a heart attack or stroke were over nine times greater in these women. 

Women in this age group who reported good marriages were 52 percent less likely to report having had a stroke or heart attack than those in bad marriages.

Men in bad marriages had a minimal risk of high blood pressure compared to women in bad marriages or men in good marriages. Men of all ages in bad marriages, however, were 33 times more likely to have a high CRP reading.

Drs. Liu and Waite did not find any connection between marital quality in men for either rapid heart rate or heart attack and stroke.

Although marriage has previously been found to promote health, these researchers argued that the quality of the marriage is also very important.

As people age, the effect of a good or bad marriage on heart health may become stronger. Although younger and older women may have equally bad marriages, an older woman has had to live with the stress of a bad marriage for many more years, the authors noted.

Although past research has found that simply being married improves men's health and survival rates, the quality of the marriage had much more effect on women than it did on men, Drs. Liu and Waite noted.

This study was published online Nov. 19 in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

The National Institute on Aging funded the study. The authors reported no conflict of interest.

Review Date: 
November 20, 2014