Do aging couples impact each other’s physical and mental well being?

Studies show that as we age in relationships, we become more biologically attuned to our partners. Sharing an environment and making cooperative lifestyle decisions can lead to a couple experiencing similar emotional and physical health effects that manifest themselves as biological similarities. These similarities can help couples for better or for worse and extend to many indicators of health, including kidney function, cholesterol levels, and even grip strength —a key predictor of mortality.

Sharon Mejia’s recent study, from the University of Michigan, supports the findings of research in this field. Christiane Hoppmann’s study echoes Meja’s assertion that couples “co-create” biological similarities in later life. Hoppmann, from the University of British Columbia, found that long-term couples experienced similar levels of difficulty with daily tasks and with depression. These changes are experienced together, for better or worse, and appear to cross over and impact the mental and physical health of both partners.

A number of factors contribute to the similarities in long-term couple’s health in older age. Many of us, for example, are drawn to partners with a similar biological makeup. Additionally, couples often share the same environment, lifestyle, class and education. Importantly, companions often mirror one another’s physical activity levels. A partner may be more inclined to stay indoors, for example, if the other one does, and vice versa. By leading similar active or inactive lifestyles, couples appear to experience similar mental and physical health impacts as they age.

Long-lasting, happy relationships can, however, reduce the health burden shared by a couple. Another study Hoppmann participated in suggests that intimacy between a happily married couple creates a buffer effect against external stresses. The study, which compared degrees of intimacy with cortisol levels, revealed that a healthy, intimate relationship has the ability to minimize stress levels induced by external factors. Strong bonds between long-term couples can produce positive health effects.

Perhaps we are all in this together, after all.

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References:

Peterson, Lindsay, Longtime Couples Get In Sync, In Sickness And In Health

Hoffman, Christiane A. & Gerstorf, Denis (2013). Spousal Goals, Affect Quality, and Collaborative Problem Solving: Evidence from a Time-Sampling Study With Older Couples, Research in Human Development 10:1, 70-87. Retrieved from goo.gl/0b19mJ.

Beate, Ditzen et al (2008). Positive Couple Interactions and Daily Cortisol: On the Stress-Protecting Role of Intimacy, Psychosomatic Medicine 70: 883-889.

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