Older couples whose marriages are not very happy have greater risk of heart trouble. And that's particularly true for the wife, according to research led by Michigan State University that suggests older spouses may benefit from marriage counseling.
"Marriage counseling is focused largely on younger couples," said lead researcher Hui Liu, a sociologist, in a written statement about the study. "But these results show that marital quality is just as important at older ages, even when the couple has been married 40 to 50 years."
For the study, she and University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite looked at data from 459 married women and 739 married men who were part of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. They ranged in age from 57 to 85 at study's start. Survey responses on marital quality were paired with lab results and reports of cardiovascular health.
The Daily RX said that among women ages 75 to 85, "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." In that age group, they were 3.46 times more likely to have a rapid pulse and nine times more likely to have stroke than those in good marriages.
They measured cardiovascular risk as "hypertension, rapid heart rate, C-reactive protein and general cardiovascular events. Results suggest that changes in marital quality and cardiovascular risk are more closely related for older married people than for their younger counterparts and that the link between marital quality and cardiovascular risk is more pronounced among women than among men at older ages."
The Washington Post said it's one of the first studies ever to take an extended look at heart health through the lens of marital happiness using a nationally representative sample of adults.
Among other findings:
— "A bad marriage is more harmful to your heart health than a good marriage is beneficial."
— The impact of a marriage's quality grows as one ages. In old age, the impact of stress from a bad marriage can be quite severe.
— The negative impact is stronger on a woman's heart than a man's. At the same time, "heart disease leads to a decline in marital quality for women, but not for men," the study said.
"But why is it that women were hurt even more by unhappiness in a marriage?" asked the Washington Post's Elahe Izadi. She said that Liu theorized it's possible "women are more likely to internalize their feelings, feel depressed and be more sensitive than the men in their relationships. They also found that when women were sick with heart disease, it lowered the quality of a marriage, but not when men were sick." She said women are more often cast as caregivers for a sick husband.
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