Spouses of heart disease patients face high risks themselves

November 09, 1999

ATLANTA, Nov. 10 -- Women whose husbands are recovering from heart attacks or open heart surgery may have a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease themselves, according to a study presented today at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions.

"Currently, all of our attention centers on the heart attack patient's need to lower his or her risk factors in order to avoid disease progression," says Lynn C. Macken, R.N., M.A., coordinator of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. "This study indicates that targeting the spouse of the patient may be important too."

The researchers studied a group of 170 men who recently had a heart attack or had undergone coronary bypass surgery for blockages in heart arteries. Approximately two months after the heart attack or heart surgery, the patient and his wife separately answered questionnaires on heart disease risk factors. The researchers analyzed the degree to which spouses shared risk factors, either good or bad.

"What we are seeing is that the wives of heart attack patients have risk factors similar to their husbands," Macken says. "In some cases, the women's risk factors were even higher than their husbands, which is particularly alarming because the women tended to be younger than their mates and were not being screened for potential heart disease."

In many cases, one risk factor shared between spouses was high body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is defined as overweight while a BMI above 30 is considered obese. Macken's group found that in 76 percent of the couples, at least one person was overweight or obese. Both partners were overweight or obese in 50 of the couples. Only 40 couples shared normal BMI levels.

In addition, in only 75 of the 170 couples did both members know their current cholesterol level.

There were also similarities in current and past smoking histories and exercise levels, indicating other ways spouses share a high-risk lifestyle, Macken says. Twice as many women as men continued to smoke following the male patient's heart attack or other coronary event. In addition, fewer women were exercising compared to men.

"When we are working with patients to help them change high risk lifestyle behaviors such as smoking and lack of exercise, we tend to assume that the patient is sharing that information with his or her family. This study indicates that is not happening, and it also says that we need to target risk reduction to include not only patients, but spouses too," she says.

"If we want to lower risk factors for patients, the change will have to begin at home and we have to be aware that both spouses may be in need of treatment," she says. "In our own program, we invite the spouses to participate. Although some spouses do participate, we don't measure their risks and we don't counsel the spouses individually," she says. "We need to think of new ways to inform and educate spouses, to give them a health risk appraisal and urge them to make lifestyle changes of their own and to seek treatment if necessary." Co-authors include Bernice C. Yates, Ph.D., R.N. and Susan Blancher, R.N., Ph.D.
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Media advisory: Lynn Macken can be reached at 308-630-1138 (Please do not publish telephone number.)

American Heart Association

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