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Marital Arguments Lead to Weakened Immune System in Older Couples

Marital Arguments Lead to Weakened Immune System in Older Couples

Even couples who have been happily married for decades can suffer negative health effects from the stress of marital arguments, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Ohio State University found that abrasive arguments between husbands and wives--married an average of 42 years--were linked to a weakening of certain aspects of their immune responses. In addition, hostile arguments were associated with an increase in levels of stress hormones.

These changes could possibly make people more susceptible to illness, particularly infectious diseases and perhaps cancer, according to the researchers.

The results of this research are similar to those found in a study of newlywed couples, said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State who was involved in both studies. But, in some ways, she believes the results in these older couples were more surprising.

"'You might expect that arguments would have less impact on older couples because they've gone through these disagreements many times before and have learned to deal with them. But that's not the case," said Kiecolt-Glaser.

The results were also significant because the older couples were relatively happy--only 13% met criteria for marital distress--and because they generally showed more positive behavior and less negative behavior toward each other than did the newlywed couples.

"Despite the advantages these older couples had compared to the newlyweds, they still showed negative effects related to the amount of hostility in their disagreements," she said.

Kiecolt-Glaser conducted the research with Ronald Glaser, professor of medical microbiology and immunology, and William Malarkey, professor of internal medicine. All three are members of Ohio State's new Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

The researchers presented their findings March 14th in Washington, DC, at the International Congress of Behavioral Medicine, hosted by the Society of Behavioral Medicine.

Experiment Probes Impact of "Problem" Issues

The research involved 31 couples age 55 to 75. They completed questionnaires that examined their level of marital satisfaction. They then participated in an 8-hour testing session at Ohio State's Clinical Research Center. Each person had an intravenous tube inserted, which allowed researchers to take blood samples at regular intervals during the experiment.

After a brief adjustment period, each couple would begin a discussion about topics both had identified as causing problems in their marriage. They were given a half-hour to try to resolve the issues. During that time, researchers took blood samples, which were later tested for indicators of immune function and changes in hormone levels.

Researchers also videotaped the discussions and later rated the amount of negative behaviors shown by the couples toward each other.

"We found that the more negative behaviors the couples showed toward each other, the more their immune measures were weakened," Glaser said. Couples with weaker immune measures also described their usual marital disagreements as more negative.

The blood levels of several hormones--such as cortisol, adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), and norepinephrine--were also measured during the couples' arguments. "We tested these hormones, which are released during stress, because they can affect the immune response," Malarkey said.

The results showed that these hormonal levels varied in women depending on the amount of negative behavior during the arguments and their overall marital satisfaction, Malarkey said. However, there was no changes in men's hormone levels.

"We believe that women show more response in hormone levels because they are more attuned to negative behaviors in their relationships and are more sensitive to them, Kiecolt-Glaser said.

While changes in immune response were seen in both newlywed and older couples, the effects may have greater consequences in older people, according to the researchers.

Older adults already have a less vigorous immune response than do younger people, Glaser said. And other studies by the Ohio State researchers show that chronic stress has more debilitating effects on older people.

"Older adults have greater rates of illness and death due to infectious diseases compared to younger people," Glaser notes. "Additional stress, such as from marital arguments, may put them at greater risk."

Other members of the research team were John Cacioppo and Robert MacCallum, professors; and Mary Snydersmith, graduate student, all in psychology at Ohio State. The project was supported by the NIH and Ohio State's Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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