I love you, but you're making me sick

December 12, 2000

Toronto: According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, when your intimate relationships become strained there may be long- term effects on your heart health.

A new study, appearing in The Archives of Internal Medicine, shows that people in unhappy relationships who have mild high blood pressure (hypertension) experience a sustained increase in blood pressure when they are with their partners.

But people with mild hypertension who are in loving, supportive, relationships experience a decrease in blood pressure when they are with their partners.

Dr. Brian Baker,lead investigator and Foundation spokesperson, explains:

"The better the relationship, the better the outcome. And vice versa. When you have a supportive partner it pays off. But if your relationship is bad it may be time to seek help," says Dr. Baker who is a cardiovascular psychiatrist at St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto.

Anyone can raise their blood pressure during an argument for as long as the confrontation lasts. But this is the first study to show that the continuous tension of a distressed intimate relationship can raise blood pressure, continuously over a 24 hour period, he says.

"For people with mild hypertension and a troubled relationship, we need to see if visits to a marriage counselor or stress therapist can be effective in lowering blood pressure," says Dr. Baker.

Dr. Baker cautions that the hypertensive effect of a stressed relationship or marriage has not been shown for people with normal blood pressure. "We were looking at a vulnerable group," he says.

The three-year-long study followed 103 patients, aged 20 - 65 with mild high blood pressure ( defined as repeated diastolic pressures above 90 mm Hg on three separate occasions between 6 weeks and 6 months).

All subjects filled in a questionnaire that measured marital adjustment, marital satisfaction and marital distress. About one quarter of the patients showed a profile of marital distress. Ambulatory blood pressure was measured over 24 hours at the beginning of the study and an echocardiogram (ultrasound image) was taken of the heart. The same procedures were undertaken at the end of the study.

At the end of the three years, the people profiled as suffering from marital distress had a 24 hour diastolic blood pressure about 6 mm Hg higher when they were with their spouses than when they were not. But those profiled as being satisfied with their marital status showed a reduction of 6 mm Hg in diastolic blood pressure when they were with their partners

Also, after three years, echocardiography revealed a larger left ventricle of the heart in those with distressed marriages than those who were happily married.

What increases your blood pressure in a bad relationship seems to be marital distress, according to Dr. Baker. "It's not that your partner drives you to drink or smoking or eating unhealthily because we controlled for these factors."

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recently conducted a major survey that found that almost one out of two Canadians, aged 30 and over, report being stressed on a daily basis. Family relationships and worries about jobs and finances were the major stressors according to the Foundation's Annual Report Card on Canadian's Health.

26% of Canadians report family relationships as a major cause of stress.
The results of Dr. Baker's study appear in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 2,000; 160: 343-3458

For further information, please contact:
Kelley Haggert 416-489-7111 ext. 455
Richard Sutherland 416-489-7111 ext. 302

Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario

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