The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay notes that previous research suggests close relationships are good for heart health, and there's lots of evidence that emotions can have powerful effects on physical health. Psychological factors are now recognized as contributing to the development of heart disease.
A study presented this week at a meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society looks at the connection between hardening of the arteries and the quality of relationships.
Some 150 older, married couples were asked to pick a topic that was the subject of disagreement in their relationship. Topics included money, in-laws, children, vacations, and household duties. Each couple discussed the chosen topic for six minutes while they were videotaped.
The comments exchanged between the husbands and wives were then categorized as friendly or hostile, and submissive as opposed to dominant or controlling.
A comment deemed dominant or controlling would be one such as, "I don't want you to do that, I want you to do this instead." There were also variations among the categories. A comment both hostile and dominant might be, "You're too negative all the time." A friendly and submissive comment could be, "Oh, that's a good idea, let's do it." Hostile and submissive could be, "I'll do what you want if you get off my back."
After the discussion, each couple had a C-T or CAT scan of the chest to look for evidence of hardening of the arteries.
The researchers found that the more hostile the wife's comments, the more evidence there was of hardening of her arteries, and the arteries were even worse in hostile wives who had hostile husbands, too.
On the other hand, husbands who displayed more dominant or controlling behavior, or whose wives displayed dominant behavior, were more likely than other men to have more severe hardening of the arteries.
The implication, Senay explains, is that for women, hostility increases the risk of heart disease, and for men, dominant or controlling behavior increases that risk.
Interestingly, the women were unaffected by their own or their husbands' dominant behavior, and the men were unaffected by their own or their wives' hostility.
So, can improving our relationships help keep our hearts healthy?
"We still don't have enough information to be certain," Senay says. "Exercise and good diet can help reduce stress and the risk factors for cardiac disease. Perhaps marriage counseling will eventually be added to the list of heart-healthy advice!"