Being married appears to be a heart-healthy lifestyle, according to researchers.
Married men and women had lower rates of heart disease than those who were widowed, divorced or single, with fewer conditions like hardening of the arteries or blood clots, a study found. The research, which analyzed medical records of 3.5 million people nationwide evaluated for heart disease, was presented today in Washington at the American College of Cardiology meeting.
While reasons behind the marriage findings are unclear, it supports previous studies that show couples tend to be healthier and live longer than singles. The study reinforces the idea that heart health can be affected by social as well as physiological factors, said Vera Bittner, chairwoman of ACC’s Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease Committee.
“We cannot estimate cardiovascular risks purely based on metabolic abnormalities that we can measure but psychosocial variables could also be very important,” said Bittner, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, on a conference call with reporters.
The study is the largest of its kind, said Carlos Alviar, a cardiology fellow at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and the study’s lead author.
The findings don’t mean people should rush out and tie the knot to reduce their heart disease risk, Bittner said. The studies only show an association. Still, doctors need to make sure they know patients’ marital status and whether they have support when ill, she said in an e-mail.
“We are not advising people to get married as a way to prevent cardiovascular disease,” said Alviar in an e-mail. “When it comes to cardiovascular disease, marital status does indeed matter and it is important for clinicians to take this into account when they are examining patients.”
Having a spouse may help promote a more robust lifestyle and ease access to medical care, researchers said.
In the study, 69 percent were married, 13 percent were widowed, 8.3 percent were single and 9 percent were divorced.
They found that those who were married had a 5 percent lower risk of vascular disease, which can include conditions like hardening of the arteries or blood clots, than singles and a 19 percent reduced chance of peripheral artery disease, in which plaque builds up in the body’s arteries. The greatest benefit was seen in married people who were ages 50 and younger.
Both widowed and divorced men and women had higher rates of heart disease, the study showed. Widowers and widows combined had a 3 percent increased risk of vascular disease and a 7 percent higher chance of coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease and the leading cause of death in the U.S.
In a separate study analyzing family life and heart health, researchers found that women who gave birth to four or more children had more plaque in their hearts and thickening of their arteries, which are early signs of heart disease, then those who had two to three children.
The research included 1,644 women from the Dallas Heart Study. The study showed that women who had given birth to four or more children had about a two times higher risk of having more plaque and thickening of their arteries than women who had given birth to two or three children.
Childless women or mothers of one also showed a higher risk. The study found a 1.9 times higher chance of plaque and 1.5 times increased likelihood of thickening of the arteries in this group, said Monika Sanghavi, chief cardiology fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the lead author, in an e-mail.
For moms with more children, it may be that repeated exposure to higher cholesterol levels and insulin resistance during pregnancy may affect their future heart disease risk. Also, weight gain and other changes during pregnancy can stay on after the baby is born raising their risk of heart disease, she said.
For those with no children or one child, they may have underlying fertility or other health issues that could raise their heart disease risk.
“Events surrounding pregnancy and childbearing may provide insight into a woman’s future risk of heart disease and stroke,” she said. “We need more research to understand how the number of pregnancies a woman has might help their doctor understand their future cardiovascular risk as well.”