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Examining the effect of spousal health in older couples


The traditional marriage vow of "for better or for worse" takes on new connotation in light of recent research suggesting spouses may have a greater impact on their partner’s health than previously believed.

In the study (.pdf), researchers analyzed emotional and physical health data for more than 1,700 older couples over a 15-year period. Participants ranged in age from 76 to 90 and many had celebrated 40 years of marriage or more. According to a release:

In individuals and couples, the researchers found a strong relationship between “depressive symptoms” (unhappiness, loneliness and restlessness) and “functional limitations” - the physical inability to perform such basic tasks as climbing stairs, picking up objects, cooking and shopping.

The researchers found that spouses' depressive symptoms waxed and waned closely with those of their partners. Functional limitations in one spouse was not only associated with their own depressive symptoms but also with depressive symptoms in the other spouse. Increases in depressive symptoms in one spouse were also associated with greater functional limitations in both spouses.


...The relationship between depressive symptoms were slightly stronger in couples than some individuals, suggesting that a spouse’s physical or emotional health can have a greater impact on their partner’s health than their own in some cases.

The findings mesh nicely with previous studies showing that negative emotions can spread to others and that friends can also affect a person's quality of life.

Previously: Can good friends help you live longer?
Photo by Eric Chan

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