Romance, marriage and even hugs can have surprising cardiovascular benefits, studies show. For example, couples who attempt heart-healthy lifestyle changes together are up to 11 times more likely to succeed than people who try changes on their own, according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The study examined data from 3,722 married or cohabiting couples aged 50 or older. Among the key findings were the following:
- Smokers were about 11 times more likely to kick the habit if their partner did so as well, compared to people whose mate continue to smoke.
- Sedentary people were 5 times more likely to start exercising if their partner also began working out.
- Overweight individuals had triple the success rate for shedding 5 percent or more of their body weight if their partner also slimmed down.
While the researchers don’t know why relationships help motivate successful lifestyle changes, healthy competition and mutual support may play a role. Here are other intriguing findings about how love can nurture heart health:
Reduced risk for heart attacks. Marriage or cohabiting reduces risk for both fatal and nonfatal heart attacks in men and women of all ages, according to a 2013 study of more than 15,000 people published in European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Finnish researchers analyzed data from the FINAMI myocardial infarction registry for the years 1993 to 2002 and found that age-standardized rates of acute cardiac events were about 58 to 66 percent higher in unmarried men and 60 to 65 percent higher in unmarried women. And when married or cohabiting people did suffer a heart attack, they had a considerably better prognosis than those who lived alone.
The investigators suggest several possible reasons for these correlations, including differences in cardiovascular risk factors, healthier habits among the married, and better adherence to medical treatment (such as statins, aspirin therapy, and beta blockers) after a cardiac event.
Healthier arteries. People consider their spouse consistently supportive may have lower rates of coronary artery calcification (CAC) than those who viewed their partner as ambivalent: sometimes helpful and sometimes upsetting when they needed support, advice or a favor, according to a 2014 study of 136 older couples (average age, 63) published in Psychological Science. The researchers also found that CAC scores were highest when both partners rated each other as ambivalent. The study authors say that having a more stressful relationship may adversely influence cardiovascular disease risk.
Lower blood pressure and heart rate. Women who received frequent hugs with their husband or partner had lower resting blood pressure and heart rates than those who reported fewer hugs, a study published in Biological Psychology found. Another study, published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, reported that happily married men and women scored 4 points lower on 24-hour readings of blood pressure, compared to unwed adults, while the unhappily married had the highest blood pressure of all. The study, which included 204 married and 99 single adults, also found that blood pressure of the blissfully wed dipped more during sleep than it did in singles. “Research has shown that people whose blood pressure remains high throughout the night are at much greater risk of cardiovascular problems than people whose blood pressure dips,” stated study author Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a Brigham Young University professor.
Better stress management. After a stressful experience, people who were wed or in a committed romantic relationship produced lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, compared to those who weren’t paired up, according to a study of 500 young adults (mean age, 27). Other research suggests that stress-induced cortisol secretion may contribute to developing excessive belly fat, which in turn has been linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, the leading killer of Americans.
Longer life. People who are paired up have yet another reason to appreciate their Valentines: increased longevity. In a meta-analysis examining studies that included more than 500 million men and women, researchers found that singles had a 24 percent greater risk of early death than did currently married people. “If you’re a couple, a spouse may be after you to eat better and go the doctor,” lead study author David Roelfs, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, told NBC. “Sometimes it’s just easier to be healthier and less of a risk taker when you’re married.”