Worries, conflicts and demands in relationships with friends, family and neighbours may contribute to an earlier death suggests a new Danish study.
"Conflicts, especially, were associated with higher mortality risk regardless of who was the source of the conflict," the authors write. "Worries and demands were only associated with mortality risk if they were related to partner or children."
Men and people without jobs seemed to be the most vulnerable, Rikke Lund, a public health researcher at the University of Copenhagen, and her colleagues found.
The health-protecting effects of support from a social network and close connections with family and friends are widely recognised, Lund's team writes in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
"Less is known about the health consequences of stressful aspects of social relations, such as conflicts, worries and demands," they write.
To examine the influence of relationship stress on all causes of death, the researchers looked at data from a long-term study in Denmark. They included 9 870 adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s when the study began and tracked their health from 2000 to the end of 2011.
The researchers measured stressful social relations by comparing answers to questions about who – including partners, children, relatives, friends and neighbours – caused worry and conflicts in the participants' lives.
They also looked at answers to questions about emotional support and symptoms of depression.
During the study period, 4% of the women and 6% of the men died. Almost half the deaths were from cancer; other causes included cardiovascular disease, liver disease, accidents and suicide.
Worries and demands
About one in every 10 participants said that their partner or children were always or often a source of demands and worries. 6% said they always or often experienced conflicts with other members of their families and 2% reported always or often having conflicts with friends.
The researchers also found that 6% of participants had frequent arguments with their partner or children, 2% with other relatives and 1% with friends or neighbours.
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People who always or often experienced worries or demands because of their partners had double the risk of dying compared to those who seldom had those experiences.
Participants who always or often experienced worries and demands from their children had about a 50% increase in risk of death.
Frequent conflicts also were linked to an increased risk of dying.
Participants who always or often experienced conflicts with their partners or friends had more than double the risk of dying, and if they argued with neighbours, the risk more than tripled.
Having conflicts or worries and demands and not being part of the labour force was linked to a risk of death about 4.5 times that of a person without those problems.
Negativity in relationships
"I think it really adds to our broader understanding of the influence of relationships, not only on our overall health, but on our longevity – how long we actually live," Julianne Holt-Lunstad told Reuters Health.
Holt-Lunstad, a psychology researcher at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, was not involved in the study.
"There are a couple of other studies that have shown that negativity in relationships actually is associated with greater risk of mortality, and this study looks specifically across different types of relationships as well and also looks at the gender effect which adds to our understanding," she said.
Hold-Lunstad explained that just like exercise and eating a healthy diet is good for health, fostering the positive aspects of a relationship can be protective.
"But not all relationships are equal – we need to be careful about the negative aspects as well," she said.
Holt-Lunstad doesn't want people to get the impression from this study that ending all imperfect relationships is the right thing to do.
"We know that social isolation is bad for us as well," she said. "They're probably both bad and that's why it might be important to foster the positive aspects rather than just focusing on cutting people out of your life."
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