By LEE BOWMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
March 04, 2006
Psychologists at the University of Utah set up arguments between 150 volunteer married couples, mostly in their 60s, and then did a CT scan of their coronary arteries to look for signs of calcification, a hardening and narrowing of arteries that can put people at risk for a heart attack.
Researchers coded comments made during the six-minute-long videotaped discussions on topics like money, in-laws, children, vacations and household duties, and gave each statement a rating for the level of hostility and dominance displayed by partners.
There were close associations between those behaviors and the extent of arterial damage seen in the women and men, according to the study's leader, psychology professor Tim Smith. "A low-quality relationship is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease," he said.
He presented the findings Friday in Denver during the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society.
"Women who are hostile are more likely to have atherosclerosis, especially if their husbands are hostile, too," Smith said. "But the levels of dominance or control in women or their husbands are not related to women's heart health."
"In men, the hostility - their own or their wives' hostility - wasn't related to their heart's condition. But their dominance, or controlling behavior, or their wives' dominance, was related to hardening of arteries in the husbands."
Couples in the study got $150 for their time, had no history of heart disease and took no heart medicines. At least one partner in each couple was between 60 and 70 years of age, and the other spouse was no more than five years older or younger.
Each couple was asked to pick from a menu of topics something that had been a subject of disagreement in their marriage, and then were put in comfortable chairs facing each other across a table to talk.
Smith said while some of the discussions were calm, in some cases the couples were so hostile to each other than the psychology graduate students running the sessions referred them to marriage counselors.
For example, comments like "You can be so stupid sometimes" and "You're too negative all the time" were coded as "hostile" or "dominant." But having one spouse enthuse to the other "That's a good idea, let's do it" would be coded as a friendly, submissive comment.
The researchers worked on the assumption that a couple's behavior during the lab argument reflected a long-term pattern of behavior. However, Smith noted that what went on in front of strangers likely "is a muted version of what goes on at home."
Since all the subjects were healthy, none of the plaque buildup found by scans in arteries supplying the heart were considered a medical emergency, but Smith said that some people had such high scores they were advised to consult a doctor.
Earlier research into links between health and relationships has demonstrated that "close relationships are good for our heart health. Having relationships places you at lower risk than feeling lonely and isolated," Smiths said.
The new study underscores that "the quality of those relationships is important, and dimensions of quality that are important differ for men and women."
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