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Couples May Influence Each Other's Heart Health Risk, Research Finds

A couple on a hike
October 26, 2020

When a couple lives together, they often begin to share grocery shopping, cooking, making time for movement, and other daily activities. With all the overlap, it just makes sense that couples who live together would adopt similar lifestyle habits—for better or for worse.

According to a new study published in 1JAMA Network Open1, couples tend to share health habits, too—including the unhealthy ones. Turns out, when one person in the partnership had unhealthy habits, so would the other.

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Sharing unhealthy habits.

Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital looked at more than 5,000 couples and analyzed their cardiovascular health risk factors based on the American Heart Association Life's Simple 72 (LS7) design. The LS7 design describes seven risk factors for heart disease, including blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, activity level, diet, weight, and smoking status. The participants were organized into "ideal, intermediate, or poor health" categories and were also assigned a cardiovascular health score3.

Based on questionnaires, exams, and lab tests, more than half of participants fell into the ideal range for smoking status, cholesterol, and blood sugar. More than one-quarter, however, were in the poor range for weight, physical activity, and cardiovascular health score—in fact, only 12% hit the ideal mark for the latter. 

Then the researchers compared the results of partners in each couple. They realized more than half of the couples shared all seven of the LS7 risk factors and cardiovascular health scores, and 79% of couples had both partners in the "non-ideal" category for cardiovascular health.

The main culprits? Unhealthy diet and inadequate exercise, which most couples tended to have in common.

"We know a lot about cardiovascular risk factors for individuals but not for couples," study author Samia Mora, M.D., MHS, said in a news release. "We expected to see some shared risk factors, but it was a surprise to see that the vast majority of couples were in a non-ideal category for overall cardiovascular health."

How to support each other's health.

The study found couples seemed to influence each other's health in positive ways, too: In couples where one person stopped smoking, improved their diet, or started working out more, the other partner was more likely to do so as well.

As with most health journeys, having support from loved ones is critical for success. When living with a partner, going one step further and actually sharing the journey together may be even more helpful. Their healthy habits may encourage you to make better decisions, and if your partner doesn't tend to care for their health, adopting healthy habits together may be a good way to get them on board.

"At the end of the day, in a relationship, your partner's well-being will inevitably affect yours as well, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually," writes psychologist Margaret Paul, Ph.D.

Having a conversation to get on the same page and embark on the journey together could be helpful—even if you're starting with small acts like making more nutrient-dense meals and taking walks together each night.

"It's important for people to think about how their health and behaviors may influence the health of the person(s) they are living with," Mora said. "Improving our own health may help others."

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