If you're stuck in a bad marriage and afraid to get out, here's a new reason to leave: Older women in unhappy marriages have increased risk factors for heart disease, according to a new study.
Sociologists at Michigan State University found that people in unhappy marriages had higher cardiovascular risk factors the longer they stayed married. Men's heart health seemed to be less affected by bad marriages, perhaps because men generally don't internalize problems the way women do, theorizes lead investigator Hui Liu.
Another interesting finding: Women with heart disease experienced a decline in the quality of their marriages, but men with heart disease did not. Liu believes this supports the notion that women tend to care for their sick husbands, while men tend to be less supportive when their wives are sick.
The study looked at couples in their late fifties and up.
A phenomenon called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken-heart syndrome, is much more common among women than men, he says.
The syndrome, brought on by acute stress - like a sudden, shocking event - can mimic a heart attack, but isn't actually a heart attack. "The heart function suddenly diminishes," he says.
Knowing that, says Cziner, it's not surprising that there may be differences in how any kind of stress can affect men's and women's hearts differently.
"There's clearly a lot of data out there, prior to this study, about stress and the risk of heart disease - both acute stress and long-term chronic stress,'' he says.
As for the researchers' assumption that men tend to internalize problems less than women, Cziner isn't convinced. "That's pure supposition. Nobody really knows,'' he says. But he's not surprised by the overall findings of the study.
"There's a lot of documentation that stress negatively impacts the heart," he says.
The study, titled "Bad marriage, broken heart? Age and gender differences in the link between marital quality and cardiovascular risks among older adults,'' appears in the American Sociological Association's December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
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