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Older Adults More Vulnerable to Effects of Bad Relationships, Study Finds

Being in a relationship that has soured or become dysfunctional is stressful and can take a serious toll on people’s emotional health. But it doesn’t end there, according to a new study that investigated the physical impact such distress can have.

The research showed that especially older adults – and women more so than men – are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure when exposed to antagonistic situations for prolonged periods of time in their lives.

For the study, psychologists from the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, followed over 1,500 men and women over the age of 50, focusing on their physical responses to negative interactions with family members and friends like disagreements, criticism, voicing of disappointments, etc.

For the selection of their participants, they used data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a longitudinal study of health, retirement, and aging, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

The study results showed that “negative social interactions,” as the researchers called it, increased the participants’ chances of developing hypertension by nearly 40 percent over just four years of follow-up tests.

“This demonstrates how important social networks are as we age – constructing strong, positive relationships are beneficial to prolonged health,” said Dr. Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at CMU and one of the authors of the study in a press release.

It is less clear why women are seemingly more vulnerable to stress from relational issues than men, as the study suggests. While it would be hard to find the exact reason for these differences, it could be that females are more invested in their relationships, and are more deeply affected when these break down. Other studies on this subject have also pointed in this direction.

The findings that people get more physically affected by stress and upheaval as they age may be explained by the fact that their overall health and resilience weakens, including when dealing with negative emotions. Also, as they retire and undergo other changes in their later years, the risk of social isolation can increase and become a source of anxiety. If existing social connections are less than perfect, those prospects only worsen.

As a number of studies have shown, seniors who are lonely and isolated tend to be in poorer physical and mental health than their contemporaries who are in loving relationships. In other words, it is worthwhile to keep working on your family- and social life while you still can…

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.