How Relationship Quality Affects Heart Disease Risk

We know that relationship quality can have a definite affect on us. The differences between a happy or strife-filled family get-together are pretty obvious. However, most of us view its influence as strictly psychological or emotional. A new study looking at the quality of spousal relationships lead to some interesting observations, which may challenge the way many of us understand health.

The study was done on 136 couples that had been married an average of 36 years. The researchers interviewed each spouse, gathered routine cardiovascular risk factors from each (such as cholesterol, blood glucose levels, and lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and smoking), and they even did a calcium score of their heart. The researchers then gave each person a ‘positivity’ or ‘negativity’ score on based on how they viewed their relationship. They then compared these scores to their calcium scores.

The participants were divided into two main categories based on their positivity score. In total, 30% of the study participants were viewed by their spouse as positive while the other 70% were a complicated mix which the researchers called “ambivalent”. Besides the less positive relationship status, participants who were ambivalent to each other also had more calcium buildup in their arteries. This means they had a higher cardiovascular risk than participants in positive relationships. The increased cardiovascular risk could not be explained by the lab tests or lifestyle factors. They appear to come from the relationship.

So how can this be explained? The lead researcher Bert Uchino stated that in an ambivalent relationship, “you are less likely to approach that person to get support. And if your partner feels ambivalent towards you, they are less likely to ask for help.” Another issue is that when ambivalent couples do seek encouragement, “They tend to get poor support, which exacerbates the stress of whatever they are going through.”

The obvious question is how far these results carry? Can other close relationships such as those with children, friends, or coworkers also affect a person’s physical health? The researchers postulate that they can.

Taking this one step further, these results could also easily apply to your faith. Could a good relationship with God reduce your cardiovascular risk and benefit your in many other ways? Believing the most powerful person in the universe is on your side, supports you, and wants the best for you can be a huge stress reliever. If you have a positive relationship with God you are more likely to spend time with Him, put your problems into his Hands, and eventually find peace.

If you would like to learn more about how faith could benefit your physical health see our video on Trust in Divine Power and our article, Faith and Longevity.



Uchino, BN, smith, TW, and Berg CA.  Spousal Relationship Quality and Cardiovascular Risk.  Psychological Science.  Feb 5, 2014.

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Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

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