Health – Longtime Couples Get In Sync, In Sickness And In Health – 5/22/16 – NPR by Lindsay Peterson
We think of aging as something we do alone, the changes unfolding according to each person’s own traits and experiences.
But researchers are learning that as we age in relationships, we change biologically to become more like our partners than we were in the beginning.
“Aging is something that couples do together,” says Shannon Mejia, a postdoctoral research fellow involved in relationship research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “You’re in an environment together, and you’re appraising that environment together, and making decisions together.” And through that process, you become linked physically, not just emotionally.
Looking at married couples who were together less than 20 years and couples together for more than 50, Mejia and her colleagues have found striking similarities between partners who have spent decades together, especially in kidney function, total cholesterol levels and the strength of their grips, which is a key predictor of mortality.
The data came from 1,568 older married couples across the United States. The couples were part of a larger dataset that included information on their income and wealth, employment, familyc onnections and health, including information based on blood tests.
One obvious reason for partner similarity is that people often choose partners who are like them — people from the same stock, with similar backgrounds. But that didn’t explain why there were more similarities between the long-time partners, compared to the others.
Mejia’s work follows that of Christiane Hoppmann, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. She and her colleagues found that longtime couples experienced similar levels of difficulty with daily tasks, such as shopping for food, making a hot meal and taking medications.
They found the same for depression, and with both depression and daily task difficulties, they found that the couples changed, for better or for worse, in sync.
They also found that the effects crossed over from the mental to the physical. In other words, increases in feelings of depression in one spouse led to more daily task limitations in the other.
But the news in these partner studies is not all bad.
The researchers found that over a four-year period, when one partner’s optimism increased, the other partner experienced fewer illnesses such as diabetes and arthritis compared to people whose partners did not become more optimistic.
So, “the fact that (your spouse) increased in optimism is good for you,” even if your optimism didn’t rise, Chopik said.
Chopik is currently studying how two partners’ levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, change and become coordinated over time. He plans to compare couples whose relationships span at least 40 years to those who have been together for less than two.
the implications for health care are clear. People in relationships don’t experience chronic health problems on their own. When a spouse comes in with a problem, the other spouse could be part of the cause — or the solution.
Lindsay Peterson is a graduate student and freelance science writer in Tampa, Fla