“What we observed was as the amount of negativity in relationships increased, risk of hypertension [in women] also increased,” reports Rodlescia Sneed, co-author of the study. She and Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie-Mellon University, looked at data from 1,502 healthy adults over 50 contained in a longitudinal study of more than 26,000 Americans known as the Health and Retirement Study. That study tracks participants’ health information every two years, including blood pressure and other physical markers as well as psycho-social health.
Sneed and Cohen found that negative social interactions, including excessive demands, criticism, disappointment, and disagreeable exchanges, correlated with a 38 percent increase in developing high blood pressure in women. Younger women, aged 51 to 64, were more affected by negative interactions than were older women.
A particularly interesting wrinkle in their findings is the gender difference the data reveals. Only women showed a link between bad relationships and high blood pressure. “There is a lot of evidence that women pay more attention than men do and care more about their relationships than men do and it can be particularly devastating,” says Sneed.
Previous research has shown women in a bad marriage are at more risk of heart disease,stroke and diabetes. What’s new about this study is that it looked at all negative social interactions, not only those between spouses. These findings are significant for women’s long-term health: tolerating bad relationships appears to impact not only mental health but also longevity.