Spousal spats may harm heart health

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By Megan Rauscher (Fri Mar 3, 2006 8:24 AM ET)spat

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The manner in which husbands and wives argue over such hot-button topics such as money, in-laws, and children, may be a factor in their risk of developing coronary atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries of the heart.

In a study of 150 couples, mostly in their 60s, researchers found that women who behaved in a hostile manner during marital disputes were more likely to have atherosclerosis, especially if their husbands were also hostile.

In men, hostility - their own or their wives - was not related to atherosclerosis. However, men who behaved in a dominating or controlling manner - or whose wives behaved in that way - were more likely to have clogged coronary arteries.

This study supports a "small but growing body of research that suggests that beyond the health benefits of being married, marital quality seems to make a difference in heart health," Dr. Timothy Smith, a psychologist from the University of Utah noted in an interview with Reuters Health.

"Conflicts are an unavoidable part of being in any meaningful relationship," Smith said, "but the way we conduct them is important not only for our relationship health and emotional well-being but maybe even for our physical health as well."

Smith's team took a "behavioral snapshot" of married couples by bringing them into the lab and having them discuss a topic that is a source of conflict or disagreement for them. "We assumed that the couple's behavior during the discussion would reflect their long-term pattern of behavior," Smith explained, "although a marital spat in front of researchers likely is a muted version of what goes on at home," he acknowledged.

The videotaped disputes were given a score indicating the extent to which each participant was friendly versus hostile, and submissive versus dominant or controlling.

The researchers related these scores to the level of coronary artery calcification - a measure of plaque buildup in the arteries supplying blood to the heart, seen on a CT scan.

According to Smith, who presented the study findings Friday at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society, wives who were more hostile during the discussion had more calcium deposits in the coronary arteries, placing them at increased risk for a heart attack. "This was particularly true for women whose husbands were also hostile so that pattern of reciprocated hostility was associated with atherosclerosis for women," Smith said.

For husbands, displays of dominance or control by themselves or their wives were most related to atherosclerosis.

"The only group of men that had very little atherosclerosis were those where both they and their wives were able to talk about a disagreement without being controlling at all," Smith said. "So the absence of a power play in the conversation seemed to be heart protective for men," he concluded.