For middle-age adults, frequent arguments with partners, relatives or neighbors may increase the risk of death, according to a new study.
Past research has long focused on the positive outcomes of social relationships, with the understanding that a lack of a support network is a health risk factor, said study author Dr. Rikke Lund. However, she said that those studies didn’t factor in all the outcomes of a social relationship.
“Inevitably, most of our contact with others includes a negative impact, which hasn’t been studied as thoroughly as the supportive aspect,” said Lund, an associate professor in the department of public health, section of social medicine at the University of Copenhagen.
From 2000 through 2011, Lund and her team surveyed 10,000 adults between the ages of 36 and 52 about their daily social relationships, focusing on who caused stress and conflicts for the participants. Approximately 1 in 10 participants reported partners and children as the largest source of excess worries and demands. One in 20 ranked relatives as the highest source of stress, while 1 percent claimed friends to be the most stressful.
During the study period, 196 women (4 percent) and 226 men (6 percent) died. Nearly 50 percent of the deaths were from cancer; the rest included heart disease, stroke, liver disease, accidents and suicide.
After analyzing this data, the researchers concluded that frequent worries or demands created by partners and/or children were linked to a 50 to 100 percent increased risk of death from all causes.
Men were more vulnerable than women to worries and demands from their partners. Lund said men tend to have smaller networks, which may mean that stress in their relationships has a larger impact – but it remains unclear why men are at a higher risk.
“Since many men tend to mention their partner as their closest, or only, confidante, having these demands and worries from partners may actually harm them more than women, who tend to have larger networks to depend on,” she said.
The unemployed also had an increased vulnerability to relationship stressors, compared to those who had similar stressors but had a job.
“[One] could be double exposed. [It’s] a stressful time in life due to being unemployed, but also due to conflict and worries experienced with partners,” Lund said. “It seems like these two factors actually amplify each other.”
Researchers were surprised to see that conflict with neighbors had a significant impact on longevity. While only 1 percent of participants reported frequent negative encounters with neighbors, there was a three times increased mortality risk with this kind of interaction.
“[One] can’t really escape it; you didn’t chose the people who live around you…,” Lund said. “[It’s] important to know these strong conflicts between neighbors perhaps could be very, very damaging."
Given these findings, researchers concluded that conflict management skills may help curb premature death related to social relationship stressors.
“It seems important that we are aware that these stressful aspects of our social relationships tend to also have an impact on our health, and we should take it seriously,” Lund said, “…perhaps as seriously as health behaviors we’re focused on, [such as eating, smoking and alcohol consumption].”
The research was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.