One study, for instance, found that a married couple's typical argument can delay wound healing by at least a day. Highly hostile couples healed at rates that were 60 percent lower than those with lesser hostility levels. Blood samples take from those highly hostile couples showed increased levels of certain "cytokines," or proteins, including interleukin-6, which stimulates the healing process but also has been linked to long-term inflammation.
"And sustained elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines have been linked to a variety of age-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease, so our data support their [Smith and colleagues] findings," Kiecolt-Glaser said.
Smith's study involved 150 healthy married couples between 60 and 70 years of age who were paid $150 to participate and received free CT scans of their coronary arteries to check for any calcification that could lead to future risk of heart attack. Couples were recruited through newspaper advertisements and a polling firm.
The couples were videotaped while discussing a sensitive subject in their marriage, such as money, children, vacations or household duties. Graduate students later coded those conversations to reflect how friendly or hostile the couples were and how submissive or controlling.
Two days after the discussions, the couples had CT scans yielding a score for each person indicating the amount of plaque build-up in the arteries that supply the heart.
The finding: "In our data, it [marital discord] was as large an effect [for atherosclerosis], statistically, as traditional risk factors like smoking, cholesterol, blood pressure, activity level, etcetera, but smaller than the effect for age and sex," Smith said.
So, add marital stress to the risk factors people should be aware of as they consider their overall risk for heart disease, Smith explained.
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