People have been familiar with the marriage advantage concept since the late 1800s when it was shown to improve overall survival. Now new evidence shows that having a mate may be as important as traditional risk factors when it comes to cardiovascular disease.
Studies on the Power of Marriage
A New York University Langone Medical Center study team reported that marriage lowers the risks of heart problems and cardiovascular disease affecting the legs, neck and abdominal areas. Researchers compared cardiovascular disease rates in 3.5 million Americans who sought medical screenings or scans from 2003 through 2008 at 20,000 health centers around the country.
Participants ranged from 21 to 102 years old with an average age of 64. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) were female, and 80 percent were white. The study included 110,190 African-Americans, 103,081 Native Americans, 85,308 Hispanics and 71,090 Asians. Married people accounted for 69 percent with 14 percent widows and 9 percent divorced participants. The 8 percent of single people made up the comparison group.
Researchers analyzed records from a database of patients whom doctors evaluated for cardiovascular disease including heart disease and vascular problems in the limbs and other areas. The data contained applicable heart disease risk factors including family history, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, obesity and lack of exercise. Even after taking additional risk factors such as age, gender and race into account, marriage still proved protective.
Several other studies have found that marriage helps heart and overall health, but this one probably is the largest. While previous research showed that married men received greater benefit than married women, this study didn’t find gender differences. In every age group, husbands and wives had lower risks than singles.
“Married men and women had 5 percent lower odds of any vascular disease,” said study researcher and cardiology fellow Dr. Carlos Alviar, comparing them to singles. “Widowed men and women had 3 percent higher odds, and divorced men and women had 5 percent higher odds of any vascular disease.”
People under age 50 experienced the greatest marriage advantage. They had a 12 percent lower risk of heart-related disease than singles in their age group. Older couples between 51 and 60 had a 7 percent reduced risk while the eldest spouses above 60 had approximately 4 percent lower odds of heart disease.
For cardiovascular disease risk factors, smoking was highest (31 percent) among divorced people and lowest (22 percent) in widowed participants. Obesity was most common in single people (31 percent) and divorced subjects (30 percent). Widowed people had greater chances of high blood pressure (77 percent), diabetes (13 percent) and sedentary lifestyles with inadequate exercise (41 percent).
How Mates Matter
Although the NYU researchers found a link between marriage and lower heart disease risk, their study didn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Dr. J. Jeffrey Marshall, a Gainesville, Ga., cardiologist, reviewed the findings but wasn’t involved in the study. He, Dr. Alviar and Dr. Jeffrey Berger, M.S., senior study investigator and NYU Langone cardiologist, speculated on marriage’s apparent protective factor.
“Maybe married people look out for each other,” Dr. Marshall said. “They may exercise together. Your spouse may help you watch your diet.” He noted that many of his male patients with heart problems say their wives dragged them to the emergency room.
Dr. Alviar agreed that partners might look out for each other. “Those who have a spouse may be more likely to comply with doctors’ appointments and medications,” he said.
According to Dr. Berger, a pairing such as marriage offers an emotional and physical support system during times of illness and general health that differentiates them from all other unmarried groups. Spouses may provide transportation, which increases their mates’ access to health care.
Lennox Hill Hospital cardiologist Dr. Tara Narula reported on the study as a CBS News contributor. She added that spouses may encourage other healthy habits like limiting alcohol and not smoking. One mate may recognize symptoms the other one doesn’t. She emphasized that the quality of your marriage is important. Marital distress can increase blood pressure and raise plaque in your blood vessels, which can lead to cardiovascular disease. Excess tension can cause your body to release stress hormones and lead to depression. But a supportive spouse can make sure you protect your heart health.
To prevent or treat high blood cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe Inegy. This combination medication provides dual benefits. Ezetimibe reduces the amount of cholesterol your body absorbs from your diet. Simvastatin is a statin drug that reduces the amount of cholesterol your liver makes. By lowering your bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides while raising your good HDL cholesterol, Inegy decreases your heart disease risk as it helps prevent heart attacks and strokes.
Universal Heart Health Tips
Dr. Marshall offers five tips to his cardiac patients to improve their heart health, regardless of their marital status:
Eat a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet
Sweat every day
Achieve your ideal body weight
Stay on your medicines
Inform Your Doctor
Your family life and emotional well-being affect how well you take care of yourself, so your doctor needs to know your marital status. Changes including marriage, divorce and death of your spouse can alter your disease risk. Keep your doctor up to date whenever life changes occur so you can address how they affect your health together.