An unhappy marriage can weigh heavily on anyone's heart, but apparently women may suffer the most ill health effects related to heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Women who felt depressed in strained marriages faced a boosted risk of hypertension, waistline obesity, high blood sugar, high triglycerides and low levels of "good cholesterol" HDL – five factors of metabolic syndrome. Male spouses who felt similarly down in the dumps did not see similar risks.
"The gender difference is important because heart disease is the number-one killer of women as well as men, and we are still learning a lot about how relationship factors and emotional distress are related to heart disease," said Nancy Henry, a psychologist at the University of Utah. She conducted her research as part of a broader university study.
The larger study's data suggests that a history of divorce is linked to heart disease. Psychologists recruited 276 couples who had been married for an average of 20 years and did not already have some cardiovascular disease. The husbands and wives filled out several questionnaires and visited a university clinic to get their health checked.
"The immediate implication is that if you are interested in your cardiovascular risk – and we all should be because it is the leading killer for both genders – we should be concerned about not just traditional risk factors [such as blood pressure and cholesterol] but the quality of our emotional and family lives," said Tim Smith, another University of Utah psychologist heading the larger study.
Smith hypothesized that the hormonal effects of stress could lead to married women's growing waistlines, rising insulin resistance, and unhealthy blood pressure levels.
Medical researchers still debate both the concept and clinical usefulness of lumping such factors together as metabolic syndrome – also known as syndrome X or insulin resistance syndrome.
"It is defined as a syndrome, but there still is controversy in the medical community – what should be included, how the different factors should be measured, whether all the factors hang together as a distinct syndrome or are they just separate things," Henry said.
But she still chose to study metabolic syndrome because there is no question its components are risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and because the syndrome was a possible explanation for how "psychosocial risk factors" in marriage are related to cardiovascular disease.
The study findings are scheduled for presentation at the American Psychosomatic Society's annual meeting on Thursday.
"There is good evidence they [women] should modify some of the things that affect metabolic syndrome – like diet and exercise – but it's a little premature to say they would lower their risk of heart disease if they improved the tone and quality of their marriages – or dumped their husbands," Smith said.
After all, stable marriages have possible health benefits as well – especially if spouses watch out for each other.