The impact probably comes from increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system, explained Frank A. Treiber, vice president for research at the Medical College of Georgia, who has also done research on the issue.
"A lot of my work has to do with things such as family relationships, risk factors for hypertension, kids from dysfunctional families," Treiber said. "They are more reactive to stress, which makes their hearts work harder."
The new report on the British study "does add another piece to the puzzle," Treiber said. The link between negative relationships and cardiovascular problems "has held up really well across a 12-year follow-up," he said. Still, more work is needed to determine if the same link exists in social groups other than British civil servants, Trieber noted.
It's possible that the cardiovascular impact of negative relationships can be lessened by counseling and training, he said. "I would say that the family doctor could evaluate the situation and get people referred to someone who would teach them how to cope with stress," Treiber said.
What is different about this study is that the participants defined the closeness of the relationship, noted Carol Shively, a psychologist who is also professor of pathology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.
In previous studies, those definitions came from outside, usually on the basis of the marital status of the participants, she said.
"This captures much more closely what is the importance of social relationships to ourselves," Shively said. That importance has to do with "the emotional quality as perceived by the person who is recording the relationship," she said.
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