CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Married people who receive a high level of social support from their family - especially from their spouse - show better heart and blood pressure responses to stress than couples whose family support level is low, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study.
The findings are among the first to demonstrate that the degree of perceived family support can make a difference in people's cardiovascular responses to stressful situations and may help lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. The research also highlights the value of spousal support when seeking ways to reduce cardiovascular risks.
"We feel that support from the spouse is a very important factor in terms of lowering cardiovascular risk," says Dr. Kathleen C. Light, professor of psychiatry at UNC-CH. "It may be something that couples need to be aware of and to work on, especially if there's high blood pressure or heart disease present."
For the new study, published in the June issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Light and her UNC-CH co-author, Dr. Sherry D. Broadwell, recruited 45 married couples, 24 to 50 years old, all with a child still in the home.
Each of the partners completed two standardized tests , the Dyadic Adjustment Scale and the Brief Social Support Questionnaire, in which they rated how happy they were with their spouse and how much support they received from the spouse and from the family in general. Broadwell and Light then grouped the study participants into those who reported high vs. low spouse support.
"We had the couples come in and monitored their blood pressure and other cardiovascular responses while they interacted with each other, first conversing for 15 minutes on general topics and then working into more challenging ones that they identified as real conflicts in the marriage, such as money issues, raising children," Light explains. The discussion of general topics, or "events of the day," served as the study's "less intense stressor," while the 15-minute "problem area" discussion was the study's "more intense stressor."
The couples also were left alone during these discussions "so they could behave as normally as possible," Light adds. Meanwhile, the researchers videotaped and audio recorded the discussions while monitoring their cardiovascular responses in the next room. This included blood vessel constriction as measured by impedance cardiography, a noninvasive procedure involving a band of electrodes taped to the skin.
"We found that both during the general and the conflict discussions, people who had more supportive relationships with their spouse had less cardiovascular responses to the stressors," Light says. "And for men, this was reflected in lower blood pressure and less constriction of their blood vessels, while for women it was principally less constriction of the blood vessels."
The UNC-CH researchers also report that ethnicity was not a factor. "We saw the same effects among African-American and European-American couples," Light says.
But would it make a difference in cardiovascular responses if one spouse perceived the marital relationship as supportive while the other did not?
In terms of blood pressure changes, only what the individual believed mattered. "He would be influenced by his perceptions, she would be influenced by hers, but it didn't cross over," Light says.
But in terms of blood vessel constriction, there was a crossover: Blood vessel constriction was influenced both by the husband's own perceptions of support and the wife's perceptions. "Here the effect was additive," says Light, noting that agreement between spouses added to an increase or decrease in blood vessel constriction.
"When it comes to reducing heart disease and stroke risks, people often tend to look toward diet and exercise, the more physical risk factors," Light says. "We certainly think they may benefit if they also look toward the psychological factors in their family life."