Stress isn’t good for our waistline. For older married couples, a spouse’s long-term stress levels may cause the added pounds.
In a new study, researchers at University of Michigan looked at how the negative quality of marriage can be detrimental for weight gain—possibly leading to obesity—when couples 50 and older are stressed.
The researchers specifically focused on chronic stress, which is ongoing and occurring for more than a year.
The chronic stress is related to an individual’s life issues, such as financial problems, difficulties at work or long-term caregiving.
Participants came from the nationally longitudinal Health and Retirement Study at the U-M Institute for Social Research.
The sample included 2,042 married individuals who completed questions about their waist circumference, negative marriage quality, stress levels and other factors in 2006 and 2010. Couples were married for an average of 34 years.
The result showed that low quality of marriage reported by husbands heightened the effects of partner stress on both husbands’ and wives’ waist circumference.
Interestingly, low quality of marriage reported by wives heightened the effect of wife stress on husbands’ waist circumference only.
For the increased risk of obesity, 59% of the husbands and 64% of the wives were at higher risk of disease in the study’s first assessment, whereas 66% of husbands and 70% of wives were at increased risk at the study’s conclusion.
About 9% of the participants showed a 10% increase in waist circumference. This represented an average increase of 4 inches of more over 4 years.
The finding shows that marriage has powerful influences on health. The stress experienced by partners, not the individual’s stress, is associated with increased waist circumference.
Husbands usually experience smaller negative marital quality and thus greater negative feelings may be less expected and more harmful.
Because women tend to report larger negative marital quality, low levels of negative marital quality among wives may be an indicator of a lack of investment in the marriage.
Previous findings have indicated that it’s important for couples to cope with stress together, and that goals created by a couple can be more effective than goals created individually.
The findings are also applicable to younger couples. Past research has shown that stress has strong effects on marital quality among this group, too.
The finding is published in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.
Citation: Birditt KS, et al. (2016). Chronic Stress and Negative Marital Quality Among Older Couples: Associations With Waist Circumference. Published online. DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbw112.
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