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Home / Columns / The relationship barometer of health

The relationship barometer of health

Singletons have more than double the risk of having a heart attack than those who are married, reported a large population-based study from Finland this week. Sanchita Sharma writes.

columns Updated: Feb 02, 2013 21:51 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

Singletons have more than double the risk of having a heart attack than those who are married, reported a large population-based study from Finland this week.

Risk among unmarried men was 58-66% higher, and went up 60-65% in unmarried women, as compared to married couples in all age groups.

Being married and living with your spouse also helps you bounce back from a heart attack quicker, reported the study in European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, after reviewing the records 15,330 people who’d had heart attacks over 10 years.

Past studies have also shown that married people are less likely to get pneumonia, cancers, dementia, diabetes or need surgery.

And in almost every category of cause of death — from car accidents and murders to certain cancers — single people were at higher risk than the married, showed a study of the top 20 causes of death in the Netherlands.

Of course, the Finnish study came with the usual riders — double incomes make married couples better off, they drink and smoke less, they are more likely to eat nutritious, home-cooked food, they get better support and care during an illness… all of which, say experts, keep you healthier.

What it didn't say, however, that more than the institution of marriage, it's the quality of relationship that protects you from doctors and hospitals.

The marriage edge doesn't extend to people in troubled relationships, those divorced or widowed, all of which leaves them more stressed and far less healthy than if they had never married at all.

A stressful marriage can be as bad for the heart as smoking five cigarettes a day, reported The American Journal of Cardiology in December last year, while another study reporting the year before that a divorce was far worse for health than never getting married at all.

People who had divorced or been widowed had worse health problems - heart problems, diabetes, depression, lowered agility -- than those who had been single all their lives, reported the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour after tracking the marital history and health of nearly 9,000 men and women over 50 years.

If staying married is stressful, you're clearly better out of it. Just like chronic stress and prolonged sleeplessness, domestic fights or simmering hostility affect you physically as much as emotionally.

It lowers immunity and makes you prone to infections, while raising inflammation, which is a risk factor for almost every known non-infectious disease, from heart disease to diabetes and cancers.

Relationship stress puts the same stress on men and women, though they may express their frustration differently because of socio-cultural reasons.

Some years ago, researchers from St John’s University in New York surveyed 1,300 people between 18 and 90 years and found that while men and women had similar anger levels, they expressed it differently.

Men scored higher on physical aggression, passive aggression and impulsive behaviour. Women were less likely to express their anger, but stayed resentful longer.

They also used indirect aggression by 'writing off' people, such as intending to never speak to them again.

Simple signs of affection, such as holding your partner's hand after a fight, reduce neural activity in areas of the brain associated with pain, show Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans.

In some cases, the handholding is almost as effective as using a painkiller to treat the pain.

Contrary to perception, having it out and letting off steam escalates anger and does nothing to make you feel better or resolve the situation.

Neither does passive-aggressive hostility, which makes you to get back at your partner indirectly instead of confronting them head-on.

The way to go is expressing your angry feelings in an assertive, as opposed to aggressive, way and looking for a way to resolve the problem.

And if your relationship is beyond reasoning, it's better to step away than letting it tip you over the edge.