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Calm Me Down, Darling

Study finds sweeties lower our blood pressure

FRIDAY, May 25, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Significant others may do more than make our hearts melt. They may also make our blood pressure drop.

New research from State University of New York at Oswego finds that when people are with their partners or spouses they have lower blood pressure than when they socialize with less familiar people or simply spend time alone.

Lead author Brooks Gump says the results dovetail with other studies that link marriage to good cardiovascular health. The study, which was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, appears in the May/June issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

"Certainly, if you're in a satisfying relationship, being with your spouse is good for your blood pressure," Gump says.

Gump and his colleagues studied 120 people in various social settings over six days. All couples had to have lived with their partner for at least three months to be in the study. The couples, ages 23 to 50, wore arm cuffs that took blood pressure readings every 45 minutes. At the same time, the subjects would use a Palm Pilot to answer questions about what kind of social interaction they were having, Gump says.

They found blood pressure levels dropped slightly when a person was with a spouse or significant other. Interestingly, when partners were together they usually had less conversation than when they were with others, and it didn't matter whether the couple thought their marriage was good or bad.

Gump says the presence of your partner may act as a safety signal and calm you down, where interacting with less familiar people may involve more uncertainty. The researchers found talking increased blood pressure, but when they controlled for talking, being with your partner still was better than being alone. Gump says being alone may involve a certain amount of unpredictability.

"Predictability is good. You know what's going to happen," he says.

Gump says although the changes in diastolic pressure (the second number that measures arterial pressure between contractions) were small -- 1 to 1.5 millimeters -- they were consistent and could be significant. If normal blood pressure -- 120/80 -- were lowered to 120/78 for the population as a whole, he says 45 coronary heart disease events per 100,000 people could be prevented.

The findings are consistent with other studies that have looked at blood pressure in social settings, says Dr. Esther Sternberg, a neuroendocrinologist at the National Institutes of Health and author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.

"Others have found loneliness increases blood pressure," she says.

"It's completely consistent with what we find," says John Cacioppo, co-director of the Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago. Lonely people have higher stress levels, sleep less and are more hostile, he says.

"They do see the world as a more threatening place. Styles of reacting and views of the world will take their toll," he says.

Other research offers some variations. For instance, some studies have shown marriage seems to keep men, in particular, healthy longer, while more recent research has found bad marriages can mean heart problems for women.

An 11-year study of 500 women by Kent State University researchers found wives in bad marriages had more clogged arteries, higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels compared with women in good marriages.

Cacioppo says, "There's a lot of evidence that if you're engaged in a conflicted relationship, your blood pressure will go up."

Gump doesn't dispute the possible long-term damage of stressful marriages, but he says women who are dissatisfied with their marriages may also have bad health habits that could lead to heart problems.

"Maybe overall, dissatisfying relationships produce adverse health effects, but in our study we didn't address that," he says.

What To Do

For more on how to deal with the stresses facing married couples, try the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. For other research related to marriage and health, try Selfhelp Magazine.

The American Heart Association can tell you what's bad about high blood pressure.

Or, read previous HealthDay articles on marriage.

SOURCES: Interviews with Brooks Gump, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of psychology, State University of New York, Oswego; Esther Sternberg, M.D., neuroendocrinologist, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., and John Cacioppo, Ph.D., professor of psychology, University of Chicago; May/June 2001 Psychosomatic Medicine
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