All of us have engaged in arguments with others in the past, whether it is with partners, relatives, friends or neighbors. Although these experiences are stressful, we do not necessarily think about the health risks they pose. But a new study suggests that frequent arguing may dramatically increase the risk of middle-aged death.
According to the research team, led by Dr. Rikke Lund of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, past research has indicated that good social relationships with others have positive effects on general health and well-being. But they say there are limited studies looking at how negative relationships impact health.
With this in mind, the investigators set out to determine whether there was a link between stressful social relations with partners, children, other family members, friends and neighbors, and all-cause mortality.
For their study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, the team analyzed 9,875 men and women aged between 36 and 52 years who were a part of the Danish Longitudinal Study on Work, Unemployment and Health.
All participants were questioned on their social relationships in everyday life. These questions focused on who made excess demands toward the participants, who caused worries or was a source of conflict and how often these situations arose.
Using data from the Danish Cause of Death Registry, the researchers were able to track the health of the participants between 2000 and 2011.
Frequent conflict 'can triple the risk of all-cause mortality'
At the end of the study period, 196 women and 226 men had passed away. Approximately half of these deaths were a result of cancer, while the remaining deaths were caused by heart disease, stroke, liver disease, accidents and suicide.
According to researchers, constant conflict with a partner, child, other relative, friend or neighbor may significantly increase the risk of death from all causes.
For 10% of participants, their partner or children were revealed as a frequent or ongoing source of worries and excess demands. Around 6% said their relatives often cause worries and have excess demands, while 2% said this of their friends.
Approximately 6% of participants said they often have arguments with their partner or children, while 2% said they often argue with other relatives and 1% said they frequently squabble with neighbors.
The researchers calculated that frequent worries or demands caused by partners and/or children were associated with a 50-100% increased risk of death from all causes.
But when the team looked at how frequent arguing impacted all-cause mortality, they found that constant conflict with anyone in the subjects' social circle was associated with a doubling to tripling in the risk of death from all causes, compared with those who said frequent conflict in their social circles was scarce.
Talking to Medical News Today, Dr. Lund says the team did not expect to find such a strong association:
"We were surprised to find such strong effects of conflicts on mortality risk across all types of social roles after taking into account chronic diseases, depressive symptoms, socioeconomic position, gender, age, access to emotional support and cohabitation status."
Looking at individual groups who were most at risk of middle-aged death, the team found that those who were unemployed were at much greater risk of death than those with jobs who were exposed to similar social relationship pressures.
The researchers note that men who were exposed to worries and demands caused by their female partner also had a much higher risk of death, compared with women who were exposed to similar stressors from their male partner.
Why do stressful social relationships increase risk of death?
Although the researchers are unable to pinpoint exactly why social relationship pressures appear to increase the risk of death for middle-aged individuals, Dr. Lund told us that there may be many factors at play.
For example, she noted that past research has associated stressful social relationships with increased levels of cortisol (the "stress" hormone), high blood pressure, increased risk of angina and higher levels of inflammation. She said that all of these could act as "plausible pathways between stressful social relations and increased mortality."
"Another possibility is the higher risk of adverse health behaviors among those with stressful social relations," she adds. "It has been shown, for example, that people with conflictual family relations have a lower compliance with medical treatment and consequently a higher mortality risk."
However, the researchers note that each personality is different, and people perceive, generate and respond to stress in different ways, which could influence an individual's risk of premature death.
Dr. Lund said that if possible, people who often have negative social interaction with others should try to reduce the frequency of such occurrences, adding:
"Skills in handling worries and demands from close social relations as well as conflict management within couples and families and also in local communities may be important."
It is not only arguing with others that can impact mortality risk. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that for seniors, extreme loneliness can increase risk of premature death by 14%.