Married men who see their relationship with their spouse improve over the years may also experience positive changes in their health that can lower the risk of heart disease, a recent U.K. study suggests.
Researchers examined data on 620 married fathers to see what they thought of their relationship when their child was almost 3 years old and again when their child was 9. The study team also assessed risk factors for heart disease like blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and blood sugar.
“We found little change in cardiovascular risk factors for those whose relationships were consistently good or bad,” said lead study author Dr Ian Bennett-Britton of the University of Bristol.
But changes in marriage were associated with shifts in heart health, the study found.
“Improving relationships were linked with lower levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL, bad cholesterol) and relatively lower weight when compared to those in consistently good relationships,” Bennett-Britton said by email. “Deteriorating relationships, on the other hand, were linked with worsening blood pressure.”
All of the men in the study were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which began in 1991.
The researchers assessed the fathers’ blood pressure, resting heart rate, weight, cholesterol and blood sugar levels between 2011 and 2013 when their children were nearly 19 years old.
Changes in these risk factors can take time to develop and the absolute shifts detected in the study were small, researchers note in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
After accounting for other factors that can influence the odds of heart disease such as age, educational attainment, short stature and household income, improving relationships were associated with slightly lowered (by about 0.25 mmol/litre) levels of LDL cholesterol.
Relationship improvements were also linked to falling weight based on a measure known as body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight to height. Compared to those with a steadily good marriage, men with an improving marriage had BMI scores that fell by an average 1.07 BMI units, or the equivalent of about 10 pounds.
Deteriorating relationships, meanwhile, were tied to worsening diastolic blood pressure, the “bottom number” that indicates how much pressure the blood exerts on artery walls when the heart rests between beats. Diastolic blood pressure was 2.74 millimetres of mercury higher when men reported worsening marital quality.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how marriage quality influences heart health.
Men were only about 36 years old at the start of the study, and it’s possible that they were still too young by the end of the study for researchers to see meaningful changes in risk factors for heart disease. That’s because many of these risk factors take years to develop.
Still, the results add to growing evidence suggesting that marriage can influence health, said Brian Chin, a psychology researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who wasn’t involved in the study.
It’s possible that shifts in the amount or quality of sleep occur in tandem with changes in marriage quality, and that this influences risk factors for heart disease, Chin said by email.
Improvements or declines in marital relationships might also be associated with changes in mental health or physical health, especially if different eating, exercising, smoking or drinking habits accompany these shifts.
“It’s interesting that improvements or deteriorations in marital quality are associated with changes in cardiovascular disease risk factors and surprising that consistently good or bad quality marriages were mostly unassociated,” Chin said.
“This seems to be suggesting that it’s something about the transition from having a good marriage that you feel provides you with support, care and warmth to a bad marriage marked by the absence of affection or appreciation that’s particularly relevant for cardiovascular disease risk,” Chin added.