Frequent Family Spats Linked to Risk of Early Death

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People who frequently argue with family and friends, or worry too much about their loved ones, may have triple the risk of dying early in middle age, compared with those who are less argumentative, a new Danish study suggests.

The researchers found that unemployed men in particular seemed most vulnerable to stresses caused by constant conflicts with friends or family.

"Having an argument every now and then is fine, but having it all the time seems dangerous," said study researcher Rikke Lund, an associate professor of medical sociology at University of Copenhagen.

The study included nearly 10,000 men and women ages 36 to 52, who answered questions about their everyday social relationships in 2000. The participants were asked how often they had conflicts with their partners, their children, friends or neighbors, and whether they experienced worries about and demands from their friends and family members. [11 Tips to Lower Stress]

By 11 years later, 196 women (4 percent) and 226 men (6 percent) had died. Almost half the deaths were from cancer, and the rest were due to heart disease, accidents, suicide and liver disease from alcohol abuse.

The researchers found that the people who had reported frequent conflict with someone in their social circle had two to three times higher risk of dying during the study period, compared with those who did not report frequent conflicts.

Those who reported worries about and demands from their partners or children had a 50 to 100 percent increased risk of death, the researchers said.

"Worrying about people is a character of us loving them," Lund said. "It's just when it takes up all of your time that it's unhealthy."

The results held when the researchers controlled for factors that may influence people's risk of dying, such as their gender, age, job and social class, and whether they had any major health condition in the past, according to the study published today (May 8) in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Constantly stressful social relations likely increase people's risk of dying through not just one, but multiple pathways, the researchers said. Previous research has suggested a link between stressful social relations and health, and some studies have found higher rates of heart disease among people who experience conflicts or worries from social relations, the researchers said.

It is possible that people who are exposed to stress are more likely to take on risky health behaviors such as smoking and drinking, or to become depressed or obese. These factors could in turn increase their risk of dying early, Lund told Live Science.

"Having these types of stressful relations can lead to bodily symptoms which have been shown before to increase the risk of high blood pressure. These effects on the body might be part of the explanation for the connection between stress and mortality 10 years later," Lund said.

People may also perceive and deal with stressful relationships in different ways depending on their personalities, Lund said.

The researchers found that unemployment amplified the effects of stressful social relationships. Those who were unemployed had a higher risk of dying early than those who had similar stress but had a job.

In the study, about one in 10 participants said that their partners or children were a frequent source of excess demands and worries, and about one in 20 reported having frequent arguments with their partners or children.

About 2 percent of participants had frequent arguments with their other relatives, and 1 percent with friends or neighbors.

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Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.