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Spouses Copy Each Other's Health Habits

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Spouses tend to be copycats—if one quits smoking or starts exercising, the other is more likely to follow suit, a new study finds.

Researchers examined how one spouse's changes in health habits affected the other's habits, using data from more than 6,000 individuals who participated in the Health and Retirement Study, which has followed the health of 20,000 Americans over the age of 50 since 1992.

Smokers were five times more likely to give up cigarettes if their spouse had quit and were also five times more likely to quit drinking if their partner didn’t drink.

"We found that when one spouse improves his or her health behavior, the other spouse was likely to do so as well," said study co-author Jody Sindelar of the Yale School of Public Health. "This was consistent across all behaviors analyzed and was similar among both males and females."

Behaviors geared at preventive medicine, such as getting a flu shot, also influenced spouses, if the behavior was initiated by the patient. But when doctors recommended a course of action, such as cholesterol screening, spouses were less likely to follow their partner's example.

The findings could be used by physicians to inform preventive health services by showing how influential family members, particularly spouses, are to health behaviors, the authors said. They suggest the results could be used by intervention programs to include tips on how to get spouses involved in exercise programs or to help with smoking cessation.

Andrea Thompson
Andrea graduated from Georgia Tech with a B.S. in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in 2004 and a Master's in the same subject in 2006. She attended the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University and graduated with a Master of Arts in 2006.