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Marriage helps the heart: The stress connection

August 23, 2011|By Rosie Mestel, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Married people survive longer after bypass surgery than unmarried people, according to a study.
Married people survive longer after bypass surgery than unmarried people,… (Frank Wiese / Los Angeles…)

A new study found that people who'd had coronary bypass surgery were more than three times more likely to be alive 15 years later if they were happily married than if they were not married.

A big part of this effect could be due to the positive influence of a supportive spouse, the authors say -- in getting the patient to live better, take meds, get to doctor appointments, etc. Plus marriage could give someone heightened reason and feeling of responsibility to look after themselves.

But there could be more to it than that, as the authors also acknowledge. Mood -- stress, anger, happiness, sadness -- can affect the heart more directly, according to a growing body of research. If people in marriages are happier and less stressed out on balance (even if they find plenty to crab about) then their heart may be reaping benefits.

Here are some of the effects of stress, according to the Healthy Lifestyle Program of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (which is directed by a scientist who studies the mind-body connection):

-- Your heart beats more rapidly.

-- Your blood pressure increases.

-- There is an accelerated accumulation of cholesterol in the blood vessels of the heart with narrowing of the blood vessels and an increased risk of having a heart attack.

-- Blood platelets clump together and may plug up a blood vessel in the heart.

-- The ability of the body to heal wounds and resist infectious disease decreases.

-- Autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease may become more active.

Inflammation is bad for the body; in fact, there's increasing evidence that it may be linked to a variety of chronic conditions such as heart disease and even dementia. Interestingly, statin drugs reduce inflammation as well as lower cholesterol levels, and that could be part of how they work to protect the heart. (Also, here's an article that explores inflammation and the diet.)

Stress causes blood sugar levels to rise in Type 2 diabetes. That's because the stress response is a kind of short-term call to action for the body, and extra glucose gets pumped into the bloodstream so you'll be ready should you have to suddenly exert yourself. Sustained high blood sugar is bad news for the heart because it causes tissues (including blood vessels and the heart itself) to stiffen over time.

But don't go rushing off to a Vegas wedding chapel unless you're really, really sure: Hostile marriages are linked to higher body inflammation levels. And in addition to getting or being married, there are other ways to destress, including exercise, meditation and having a strong social network.

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