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.
“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.
It’s like finishing each other’s sentences, but it’s your muscles and cells that are operating in sync.
knowing about one partner’s health can provide key clues about the other’s. For instance, signs of muscle weakening or kidney trouble in one may indicate similar problems for the other.
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.
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.
When they accounted for the effect of partner choice, they found that the biological similarities persisted, based on markers in blood tests.
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.
William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, has found evidence of the power of optimism. He and his research colleagues studied optimism, in addition to health and activity limitations, in 2,758 older couples in a national dataset.
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
These investigations of how couples affect each other’s health are relatively new, particularly the research into the biological changes, and the researchers are still searching for explanations.
Nevertheless, they say, 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.
Author: Lindsay Peterson is a graduate student and freelance science writer in Tampa, Fla.