In new research that gives new meaning to the phrase "heartfelt support," University of Utah psychologists have found having a supportive spouse can actually have significant bearing on your overall cardiovascular health.
The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science
, indicate when both partners in a marriage perceive the support they get from the other as weak, ambivalent, or upsetting, their levels of coronary artery calcification (CAC) — a measure of heart problems — tend to be particularly high.
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"There is a large body of epidemiological research suggesting that our relationships are predictors of mortality rates, especially from cardiovascular disease," said Bert Uchino, psychological scientist with the University of Utah. "But most prior work has ignored the fact that many relationships are characterized by both positive and negative aspects — in other words, ambivalence."
For the study, Uchino and his colleagues surveyed 136 older couples (63 years old, on average) about their overall marriage quality, as well as the support they receive from their spouses. Specifically, they were asked how helpful or upsetting their spouses were during times when they needed support, advice, or a favor.
The results showed about 30 percent of the individuals viewed their partner as delivering positive support; whereas 70 percent viewed their partner as ambivalent — meaning they are sometimes helpful and sometimes upsetting.
Using a CT scanner to check for overall calcification in the participants' coronary arteries, the researchers found that CAC levels were highest when both partners in the relationship viewed each other as ambivalent, regardless of gender. When only one partner felt this way, the risk was significantly less.
"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," said Uchino. "This, in turn, may influence their cardiovascular disease risk."
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