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Do social ties affect our health? Exploring the biology of relationships

Part 1: Marriage – the good & the bad

July 2017 NIH Social Ties Part 1 photoMarriage, which tends to be a person's most significant relationship, is usually good for one's health. When conflict arises, however, the health benefits of marriage may decrease.Cuddles, kisses, and caring conversations: these are key ingredients of our close relationships. Scientists are finding that our links to others can have powerful effects on our health. Whether with romantic partners, family, friends, neighbors, or others, social connections can influence our biology and well-being.

Wide-ranging research suggests that strong social ties are linked to a longer life. In contrast, loneliness and social isolation are linked to poorer health, depression, and increased risk of early death.

Studies have found that having a variety of social relationships may help reduce stress and heart-related risks. Such connections might improve your ability to fight off germs or give you a more positive outlook on life. Physical contact – from hand-holding to sex – can trigger release of hormones and brain chemicals that not only make us feel great but also have other biological benefits.

Marriage is one of the most-studied social bonds. “For many people, marriage is their most important relationship. And the evidence is very strong that marriage is generally good for health,” says Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, an expert on health and relationships at Ohio State University. “But if a relationship isn’t going well, it could have significant health-related consequences.”

Married couples tend to live longer and have better heart health than unmarried couples. Studies have found that when one spouse improves his or her health behaviors – such as by exercising, drinking or smoking less, or getting a flu shot – the other spouse is likely to do so, too.

When marriages are full of conflict, though, such health benefits may shrink. In NIH-funded studies, Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues found that how couples behave during conflict can affect wound healing and blood levels of stress hormones. In a study of more than 40 married couples, the researchers measured changes to body chemistry over a 24-hour period both before and after spouses discussed a conflict. The troublesome topics included money, in-laws, and communication.

“We found that the quality of the discussion really mattered,” Kiecolt-Glaser says. Couples who were more hostile to each other showed much larger negative changes, including big spikes in stress hormones and inflammation-related molecules. “In the more well-functioning marriages, couples might acknowledge that they disagree, or find humor in the situation, but they don’t get sarcastic or roll their eyes when the other is talking,” Kiecolt-Glaser says. In a related study, blister wounds healed substantially more slowly in couples who were nastier to each other than in those who were kinder and gentler during difficult discussions.

Couples with the “double-whammy” of hostile marriages and depression may also be at risk for weight problems. After eating a high-fat meal and discussing a difficult topic, these troubled couples tended to burn fewer calories than less hostile counterparts. “The metabolism in these couples was slower in ways that could account for weight gain across time,” Kiecolt-Glaser says. Compared to the kinder couples, the distressed spouses had signs of more fat storage and other risks for heart disease.

Article adapted from the National Institutes of Health February 2017 News in Health, available online at newsinhealth.nih.gov.