Marital Arguments Lead to Weakened Immune System in Older Couples

May 1, 1996

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

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

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

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

The results of this research are similar to those found in a studyof newlywed couples, said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor ofpsychiatry and psychology at Ohio State who was involved in bothstudies. But, in some ways, she believes the results in theseolder couples were more surprising.

"'You might expect that arguments would have less impacton older couples because they've gone through these disagreementsmany times before and have learned to deal with them. But that'snot the case," said Kiecolt-Glaser.

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

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

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

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

Experiment Probes Impact of "Problem" Issues

The research involved 31 couples age 55 to 75. They completedquestionnaires that examined their level of marital satisfaction.They then participated in an 8-hour testing session at Ohio State'sClinical Research Center. Each person had an intravenous tubeinserted, which allowed researchers to take blood samples at regularintervals during the experiment.

After a brief adjustment period, each couple would begin a discussionabout topics both had identified as causing problems in theirmarriage. They were given a half-hour to try to resolve the issues.During that time, researchers took blood samples, which were latertested for indicators of immune function and changes in hormonelevels.

Researchers also videotaped the discussions and later rated theamount of negative behaviors shown by the couples toward eachother.

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

The blood levels of several hormones--such as cortisol, adrenocorticotrophichormone (ACTH), and norepinephrine--were also measured duringthe couples' arguments. "We tested these hormones, whichare released during stress, because they can affect the immuneresponse," Malarkey said.

The results showed that these hormonal levels varied in womendepending on the amount of negative behavior during the argumentsand 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 levelsbecause they are more attuned to negative behaviors in their relationshipsand are more sensitive to them, Kiecolt-Glaser said.

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

Older adults already have a less vigorous immune response thando younger people, Glaser said. And other studies by the OhioState researchers show that chronic stress has more debilitatingeffects on older people.

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

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