Fighting with the one you love can leave you broken-hearted, a feeling that now appears to be more than just figurative.
Marital spats and dominating behavior are related to hardening of the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. Clogged arteries raise the risk of a heart attack.
A study in December found wounds heal more slowly in people who fight with their spouses.
In the new study, researchers did CT scans of 150 healthy married couples, mostly in their 60s. Then they had the couple discuss a topic for six minutes, during which time some of them argued or made disparaging remarks.
Hardening of the arteries is more likely in women when they and their husbands express hostility during marital disagreements, the scientists conclude. And it is more common in men when either they or their wives act in a controlling manner.
"A low-quality relationship is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease," said professor Tim Smith of the University of Utah. Smith planned to present the findings today at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society.
In the tests, some of the discussions were calm. Others were "quite hostile," Smith and his colleagues report. One shortcoming of the study is that it assumes the behaviors reflected long-term patterns. On the other hand, spats in front of scientists might well have been "a muted version of what goes on at home," Smith speculated.
Particularly high levels of calcification were found in women "who behaved in a hostile and unfriendly way and who were interacting with husbands who were also hostile and unfriendly."
"In couples where there was not a struggle for control—where it wasn't a contest—those men had much lower levels of atherosclerosis," Smith said.
Other factors are likely greater contributors to heart disease, however. Smoking, lack of exercise and bad diet top the list, Smith said.
"But somewhere on the list would be, 'Pay attention to your relationships,'" he said.
- How Heart Attacks Strike
- Loss of Loved One Really Can Cause Broken Heart
- Doctor's Advice: Have Your Heart Attack During Normal Business Hours
- Good-Hearted Women Fail to Deal with Bad Hearts
- Fantastic Voyage to Save the Heart
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.