Study finds spousal support, cardiac health link

File Photo.
File Photo.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — A failed stress test last August revealed that Connie Sell needed bypass surgery to relieve severe blockage in four of her arteries.

“I had shortness of breath but I considered that part of my age,” said Connie, 68, of West Lafayette. “I had some back discomfort but it wasn’t continual or constant. I didn’t realize my heart was that bad.”

She had the surgery that following November with her husband, Dave Sell, supporting her decision to do so. Dave also drove her to appointments, cared for her when she came home and was her cheerleader throughout the process.

He became her motivation.

“My goal was to come back home to be with him, to share with him and be close to him,” Connie told the Journal & Courier. “It was very important to have him sitting by my bed to see his face coming in the door. It just lifts your spirits and makes you heal faster.”

It’s not surprising that Connie believes spousal support plays a role in heart health. A new study also looks at the link between heart health and spousal support. Researchers from the University of Utah found that spouses who view each other as ambivalent, or having both helpful and upsetting qualities when it comes to providing support, had higher levels of calcium deposits, in their coronary arteries, a predictor of heart disease risk.

“The spouse is an important source of support, so when going through problems, they help you, they give you support . advice or understanding . and it really helps you deal with the stress,” said Bert Uchino, the study’s lead author and a health psychologist with the University of Utah.

Using a sample of 136 older couples, the researchers asked the participants to rate how helpful and how upsetting they perceived their spouse to be during times when they needed support, such as advice, understanding or a favor.

The average age of the participants was 63 years old. They were mostly middle-class white couples who had no history of cardiovascular disease.

About 30 percent of the participants were viewed by their spouse as a source of positive support, whereas 70 percent were viewed by their spouse as ambivalent.

“You typically don’t find long-term married couples who are truly negative toward each other,” Uchino explained. “Usually those relationships get ended along the way.”

But ambivalence isn’t beneficial in relationships either.

“People who feel ambivalent toward their spouse are not able to approach that person for support because they are not certain of what to expect,” Uchino said. “That person could be positive but they could also be negative.”

Essentially, they are not getting support from a really important relationship in their life, he said.

Even if the person goes to an ambivalent spouse for support, the spouse may behave in ways that increases their stress, Uchino said.

Dr. Michael Sheridan, a cardiac surgeon with Indiana University Health Arnett in Lafayette, said the findings in the study make sense.

“Although the study doesn’t prove it raises coronary calcification scores, if you are upset over your spouse during times you feel you need to have support then your stress levels go up,” he said.

When stress levels elevate, it can worsen already known cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Stress can also be a negative influence on people who smoke, and smoking is also a risk factor for heart disease.

Stress also affects the immune system by causing inflammation in the body, which can lead to an increased risk of plaque formation in the arteries.

Also, ambivalent relationships are more difficult to navigate emotionally, because it differs from viewing someone as completely negative, Uchino said.

If someone is simply negative, that person can be disregarded, but if it’s a loved one who has some positive qualities, their mistreatment or negative comments can have an impact, Uchino said.

“How they view you is important, so people might ruminate about that over time,” he added. “There are lots of bad things that can come from it, at least psychologically.”

The next step is to investigate possible interventions for ambivalence in relationships. Some suggestions are meditation practices and learning how to skillfully confront an ambivalent loved one.

“(But) that’s a really tough issue because many of these relationships are long-standing ones,” Uchino said.

On average, the spouses in the study were married 36 years.

The Sells have been married for 48 years.

Connie views Dave as a positive source of support.

“He listens to me and he does have the cooking for us and he doesn’t complain about running the sweeper,” she said.

Dave, who is also 68, said supporting his wife was the only option.

“I wanted to make sure she got well,” he said. “We have a lot of things we want to see and do yet.”

Beyond the practical reasons, there’s a much simpler one.

“It was because this is the love of my life,” he said.
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Information from: Journal and Courier

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