A new investigation that combined CT scans with survey results revealed that people who feel their partner is always helpful in times of difficulty seemed to have lower levels of an early sign of heart disease. It's called "coronary artery calcification" -- a build-up of calcium in the artery walls.
By contrast, couples that viewed each other as unreliably "ambivalent" -- sometimes helpful, sometimes not -- tended to have higher levels of coronary artery calcification.
The study authors noted that their finding is preliminary, and will require much more follow-up before being able to draw a direct cause-and-effect link between coronary artery status and spousal support.
"It is certainly possible that part of the reason why ambivalent marriages are associated with greater cardiovascular risk is because of health behavior changes, such as smoking or exercise patterns" that shift when spousal support is found wanting, study author Bert Uchino acknowledged. "Having good-quality relationships are thought to increase our motivation to care for oneself, so having an ambivalent marriage may decrease one's motivation to eat healthy or exercise."
"However, we believe that this may only explain a very small part of what is going on, as we directly accounted for health behaviors and other indicators such as cholesterol levels, and our results still hold," Uchino said. "Thus, we believe that these results primarily reflect the stressful nature and lack of support when in a marriage where both parties view each other as ambivalent."
Uchino, a psychological scientist with the department of psychology and health psychology at the University of Utah, reported the findings this month in the online issue of Psychological Science.
The authors focused on 136 heterosexual couples in the Salt Lake City region. The average age for participants was 63, and the average length of marriage was about 36 years. None of the men or women had any history of heart disease, and nearly all (about 97 percent) were white.
All participants completed questionnaires to get a handle on perceptions regarding both overall marriage quality and spousal behavior at those times when one or the other felt they needed support, advice or a favor.
The result: Roughly 30 percent described their spouse was solidly supportive, while 70 percent felt responses to their requests for support were unpredictably helpful or upsetting, depending.
As for the physical findings, CT scans revealed that coronary artery calcification levels rose the most when two partners both felt ambivalent about the other's support.
Calcium build-up levels fell somewhat when just one spouse felt that way, while the best (lowest) scores were seen among those where neither felt ambivalent about support.
What's more, the connection held up regardless of how satisfied a spouse said he or she was with their overall marriage.
The exact way in which the perceived lack of reliable support affects heart health remains unclear, the team noted. But they suggested that it might have a negative impact on stress levels, in turn harming cardiovascular health.
American Heart Association spokesperson Dr. Nieca Goldberg suggested the findings were in line with what she would have expected.
"It's not a surprise to me," she noted, "given the other literature that has already been published in this field. Other studies have looked at how levels of social support in people with existing heart disease affect survival rates. And they found that there is a direct relationship between the number of people a patient has in his or her support network and the length of survival following a heart attack."
"But I'm really glad we're starting to explore this area more and more," added Goldberg, medical director of the women's heart program at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City. "Because there's been lots of research looking at connections between emotions and heart health. And sometimes they're not so definitive. But now we have a study finding a link with a major marker for coronary heart disease, calcification, together with older studies that saw a link between improved survival among heart attack patients who have more social support. So clearly there's something here."
For more about heart disease risk, visit the American Heart Association.