A new report released by medical journal JAMA Network Open and republished in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch has revealed that couples may share very similar health behaviour and heart disease risk factors.
The study, which surveyed over 5000 couples found that roughly 80 percent of couples were in the non-ideal category of overall cardiovascular health and that often, the women did not see themselves as having high risk factors for heart disease.
The study’s lead author is Dov Shiffman — a senior scientific fellow at New Jersey-based medical testing company, Quest Diagnostics. He said that couples share similar behaviours that can affect their health, but that what was surprising was “the high levels of shared unhealthy behaviours within couples,” which the study revealed.
“This high percentage was largely driven by sharing an unhealthy diet and insufficient exercise,” he said.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital cardiologist Dr. Samia Mora was also an author of the study. She said that traditionally, women tended to have concerns about cancer, and in particular, breast cancer.
“Yet heart disease and stroke claim many more women’s lives than breast cancer or cancer in general,” she said. “So, these findings definitely warrant some attention.”
The study looked at couples’ smoking status, body mass index, diet and exercise frequency, among other factors. It found that almost half of couples were both overweight, and in 53 percent of cases, both members of a couple did not get enough exercise.
Almost 4 in 5 couples had an unhealthy “total heart disease risk score” — increasing their likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease in the future.
The study’s authors hope that the results from this latest research may encourage couples to work together to improve their health.
“Our study suggests that the behaviours of one person in a couple may influence the other,” Dr Shiffman said. He believes that women should be aware of the effect her partner’s behaviour can have on her own health, but that she should also feel empowered to change her own behaviours with the knowledge that it can positively influence her partner.
“This study shows that physicians should consider the family unit when evaluating an individual patient’s health,” he said. “The current health system is really built around the individual, which makes it very difficult to address health issues as a family unit. Other studies have shown that a social network in general, and particularly having a spouse, can support and facilitate positive behavioural change.”
Dr. Samia Mora believes that behaviour modification is difficult as it “remains the major challenge for prevention of heart disease and stroke.”
“Future studies should examine whether prevention interventions that involve couples or households are better than individual programs,” she said. “These findings may give women even more incentive to make positive change on their own.”
“Knowing that our own behaviour and choices influence those around us may make us more mindful and willing to go the extra mile to improve our health, especially when we recognise that by improving our health we could improve the health of those around us whom we care about,” Dr. Mora said.
Dr Shiffman believes the study should “serve as a wake-up call for older women — who may be in longer-term relationships with well-established habits and routines such as unhealthy cooking or a lack of exercise.”
“They should consider evaluating behaviours that could affect their heart health,” he said.
Dr Mora wants older women to pay attention, since she believes that the implications for them are more relevant because the chance of having a stroke or heart attack rises with age.
“This risk is much greater if the woman also has other cardiovascular risk factors,” she said. “Once you make this assessment, you should either determine the best ways to maintain your behaviours if they are ideal, or improve them if not.”