A happy marriage or marital-like relationship may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, PA.

Many studies have investigated the link between marriage and heart health. In March this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that unmarried women are more likely to die from heart disease, while another study from NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, NY, linked marriage to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).

According to study author Thomas Kamarck, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, there is growing evidence that the quality and patterns of social relationships are linked to an array of health outcomes, including CVD.

As such, the team wanted to determine whether positive or negative marital interactions influence the risk of CVD.

The researchers analyzed 281 healthy and employed middle-aged adults who were either married or living with a partner in a marital-like relationship.

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Researchers found that positive marital interaction may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Over 4 days, interactions between participants and their partners were monitored every hour, and participants rated their interactions as positive or negative.

The thickness of subjects’ carotid arteries – major blood vessels in the neck that supply the head and neck with oxygenated blood – were also measured. Thickening of the carotid arteries can cause them to narrow, which can lead to atherosclerosis – a build-up of fatty plaques in the arteries that increases the risk of CVD.

The results of the study, recently published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, revealed that participants who reported negative interactions with their partner had thicker carotid arteries. They calculated that these subjects had an 8.5% higher risk of developing CVD, compared with those who reported positive interactions with their partner.

The team notes that these findings were consistent across all age groups, races, genders and education levels. The results remained even after accounting for other factors that may influence the risk of CVD, the researchers say, and they were independent of the frequency of martial interaction, personality factors and nonmarital social interaction.

Commenting on the findings, Kamarck says:

The contribution of this study is in showing that these sorts of links [between marital interactions and CVD] may be observed even during the earliest stages of plaque development, and that these observations may be rooted not just in the way that we evaluate our relationships in general but in the quality of specific social interactions with our partners as they unfold during our daily lives.”

But lead author Nataria Joseph, who recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh but who is now at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, says she believes the implications of the findings reach further than CVD risk.

“It’s another bit of support for the thought that marital or serious romantic relationships play a significant role in overall health,” she says. “Biological, psychological, and social processes all interact to determine physical health.”

The study is subject to limitations, according to the team. For example, they are unable to establish a causal relationship between marital interactions and CVD because it is a cross-sectional study where all the data has been collected at one specific time period.

“What it does show,” Joseph adds, “is that health care providers should look at relationships as a point of assessment. They are likely to promote health or place health at risk.”

It is not only the heart that may benefit from marriage. A 2013 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, suggested that people who are married when they are diagnosed with cancer are likely to live longer, compared with cancer patients who were unmarried at diagnosis.