Spousal Spats: Bad for the Heart?

When husbands and wives argue in a hostile, controlling way, their hearts may not like it.

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So say researchers at the University of Utah . They studied 150 healthy, married couples, most of whom were in their early 60s.

The study covered two key questions:

How did the couples fight? Which husbands and wives had more coronary artery calcification?

Coronary artery calcification is a marker of plaque in the coronary arteries, which supply heart muscle with blood. Too much plaque in those arteries can raise the risk of a heart attack.

The bottom line: Hostility and controlling behavior weren't good for couples' hearts. But men and women fared a bit differently.

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The findings are being presented in Denver at the American Psychosomatic Society's annual meeting.

Fighting Fair?

Each couple was told to discuss a topic that was touchy in their relationship while being videotaped.

The couples knew they were being taped. Their fights were probably "a muted version of what goes on at home," says researcher and psychology professor Tim Smith, PhD, in a news release.

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Even so, the researchers got an idea of how the couples handled conflict. Smith's team reviewed the tapes, categorizing comments for warmth vs. hostility and dominance vs. submission.

"A warm, submissive comment would be, 'Oh, that's a good idea, let's do it,'" Smith says. "A less warm one would be, 'If it's important to you, I'll do what you want.' An unfriendly, submissive comment is, 'I'll do what you want if you get off my back.'"

"I don't want you to do that; I want you to do this," is an example of a dominant or controlling comment, states the news release.

Checking for Heart Problems

Two days later, the couples got computed tomography (CT) chest scans to check for coronary artery calcification.

In women, coronary artery calcification was greater if they or their husbands had argued in a hostile manner during the videotaped session, the study shows.

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Men's results weren't tied to hostility. However, they showed greater coronary artery calcification if they or their wives had argued in a controlling, domineering way.

The take-home message isn't to banish disagreements, which are an unavoidable part of relationships, but to handle them better, Smith notes.

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"If you were concerned about men's heart health, you would ask couples to find ways to talk about disagreements without trying to control each other," Smith says. "If you were concerned about women's heart health, you would encourage couples to find ways to have disagreements that weren't hostile."

Avoiding hostility and dominance should be good all the way around, the study suggests.

Protecting the Heart

The study doesn't prove that hostility or dominance cause coronary artery calcification, especially after just one discussion.

"People get heart disease for lots of reasons," Smith says. Though the people in his study were healthy, a few had enough coronary artery calcification to warrant a consultation with a doctor, Smith says.

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"If someone said, 'What's the most important thing I can do to protect my heart health?' my first answers would be, 'Don't smoke,' 'Get exercise,' and 'Eat a sensible diet,'" Smith says. "But somewhere on the list would be 'Pay attention to your relationships.'"

He adds that the findings are consistent with a large amount of past research on emotions, relationships, and health.

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Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: American Psychosomatic Society's annual meeting, Denver , March 1-4, 2006. News release, University of Utah .