Relationship 'ups and downs' might literally harm the heart

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Lack of spousal support linked to heart risks.

Optimal heart health comes from a variety of interactions it seems. We all know it is important to eat a healthy balanced diet, stay active and watch our weight to avoid heart disease. Now a new study shows your spouse has a role too. Having a spouse who is ambivalent when it comes to providing social support might literally raise your chances of heart disease.

Couples who think their spouses are 'upsetting' have more heart artery calcium

For their study Bert Uchino, psychological scientist of the University of Utah and colleagues Timothy Smith and Cynthia Berg showed couples who perceived their spouses as sometimes helpful and other times upsetting - or in other words ambivalent - had high coronary artery calcification (CAC) that can lead to heart attack.


“The findings suggest that couples who have more ambivalent views of each other actively interact or process relationship information in ways that increase their stress or undermine the supportive potential in the relationship,” says Uchino in a press release. “This, in turn, may influence their cardiovascular disease risk.”

The finding is especially interesting because marriage is generally linked to living a longer life. Couples in the study were married an average of 36 years. The researchers used CT scanning to link high CAC levels among couples when both partners in the relationship viewed the other as ambivalent.

Couples in the study whose average age was 63 filled out questionnaires about marital quality. They also answered questions about how supportive their spouse was when they asked for a favor, advice, or other support.

Seventy percent of those participating described their spouse as sometimes upsetting and sometimes helpful. Just 30 percent felt their spouse gave positive support.

The study doesn't prove spousal ambivalence does cause heart disease, but the researchers say it means more studies should be done to find out how lack of support within a relationship might lead to cardiovascular disease. The researchers plan to explore how marriage and other types of social ties might also influence heart disease risk.