In Sickness and In Health: Marriage Supports Survival after Heart Surgery
Happily married people who undergo coronary bypass surgery are more likely to be alive 15 years later as their unmarried counterparts likely because partners support each other through life-changing behaviors. “There’s something in a good relationship that helps people stay on track,” notes study lead author Kathleen King PhD RN from the University of Rochester.
Supportive Relationships Provide Purpose and Motivation
Previous research has linked marriage to better long-term survival after a heart failure diagnosis, and speedier short-term recovery after heart bypass surgery, but this study, published in the journal Health Psychology, is the first to look at marriage and long-term survival after heart bypass surgery.
Dr. King, professor emeriti in the school of Nursing, and colleagues tracked 225 people between the ages of 33 and 80 who had bypass surgery between 1987 and 1990. Marital status was assessed the day before surgery. Married participants were asked to rate their relationship satisfaction one year post-surgery.
The researchers then used hospital and national records to assess the number of patients who died within 15 years of surgery. Eighty-three percent of the happily married wives were still alive, versus 28% of women in unhappy marriages and 27% of unmarried women. For men, just being married was associated with a 60% survival rate, even in cases of marital dissatisfaction. But those in happy marriages were still more likely to have a higher survival rate than those in unhappy unions.
Co-author Harry Reis, a professor of psychology explains the difference between men and women. “Women are more physiologically sensitive to relationship distress than men, so an unhappy marriage can take a greater toll on their health,” he says.
Supportive spouses are more likely to encourage healthful behavior changes after a coronary surgery, such as improved diet, increased exercise, and smoking cessation. A nurturing relationship can also provide purpose and motivation to care for oneself. Less anger, stress and hostility may also lead to decreased levels of inflammation that is linked to heart disease.
Reis concludes that marital satisfaction is “every bit as important to survival…as more traditional risk factors like tobacco use, obesity, and high blood pressure.”