Men And Women's Hearts React To Different Stresses

November 10, 1998

Different kinds of stressful events send men's and women's blood pressure and heart rates soaring, new research suggests.

In an experiment with 60 married couples, husbands displayed greater cardiovascular reaction when they thought their skills were being challenged, while the wives had greater reactions when they disagreed with their husbands, Timothy Smith, PhD, of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and colleagues report.

Researchers have long known that people whose blood pressure and heart rates increase dramatically in response to stress are at higher risk of developing heart disease.

"The specificity in effects on husbands' and wives' cardiovascular reactivity suggests that if cardiovascular reactivity influences subsequent health, then there may indeed be important sex differences in the types of stressors that threaten health," Smith and collegaues write in the November issue of Health Psychology.

The researchers brought the couples to their laboratory to discuss two controversial issues. The spouses were randomly assigned to take the same or opposite sides of the controversy. Some were told their verbal abilities would be taped and judged afterwards, while the others were told their speech content was not important. Heart rate and blood pressure were recorded throughout.

The investigators found that the husbands displayed greater cardiovascular reaction when they thought their verbal abilities were being judged, but not when they disagreed with their wives. The wives showed the opposite pattern: disagreement with their husbands produced greater cardiovascular reaction, but having the quality of their speech judged did not.

"Wives were responsive to a potential threat to the quality of the interaction while husbands were responsive to a possible threat to competence or dominance," the researchers say.

The results are consistent with previous research on traditional sex roles, the researcher say, which predicts that husbands would respond more strongly to challenges of their achievements, status, and power, whereas wives would respond more strongly to challenges involving their interpersonal relations, friendships, and level of caring.

The research was supported by the University Research Committee, University of Utah.

Health Psychology is the official, peer-reviewed research journal of the Division of Health Psychology (Division 38), American Psychological Association.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For information about the Center contact Richard Hebert (202) 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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