May 10, 2021

Heart disease and stroke risk doubles if your husband or wife has it, study finds

Having a husband or wife with a heart problem could double someone’s own risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack, according to a study.

Chinese researchers found couples’ heart health was clearly linked and a worsening in one partner was likely to trigger the same in their spouse.

Living the same unhealthy lifestyles was the main link between the two, it suggested — but the stress of looking after a seriously ill partner could also raise heart risk.

One in four men whose wives had heart disease also had the illness themselves, compared to one in eight with healthy wives.

And the same relationship was seen in women, with heart disease affecting one in five women married to a man with the condition, compared to one in 10 whose husband wasn’t sick.

Having a partner who was obese or a smoker also increased someone’s own risk of heart issues, including attacks, stroke or the need for stent or bypass surgery. 

The researchers said survey answers showed that, in many cases, women controlled their families’ diets so they ‘seem to affect their husbands to a greater extent than husbands’ risk factors affect wives’.

Having a spouse with heart disease can double someone’s own risk of the illness because couples share key risk factors such as diets and activity levels, a Chinese study claims (stock image)

Heart disease is the second biggest killer in the UK, behind only dementia, killing around 170,000 people per year – a quarter of all deaths in non-Covid times – and around 7.5million people have some form of the condition.

It is a similar problem in the US, killing more than 650,000 people each year and with 18.2million people living with coronary artery disease, the most common type.   

Top causes of heart problems include being overweight, not exercising enough, eating unhealthily and being diabetic. 

This close link to lifestyle means couples who live in the same way – eating the same foods and doing the same activities – face many of the same dangers, the research suggests.

WHAT IS CORONARY HEART DISEASE?

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a major cause of death both in the UK and worldwide. CHD is sometimes called ischaemic heart disease.

The main symptoms of CHD are: angina (chest pain), heart attacks, heart failure.

However, not everyone has the same symptoms and some people may not have any before CHD is diagnosed.

Coronary heart disease is the term that describes what happens when your heart’s blood supply is blocked or interrupted by a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries.

Over time, the walls of your arteries can become furred up with fatty deposits. This process is known as atherosclerosis and the fatty deposits are called atheroma.

You can reduce your risk of getting CHD by making some simple lifestyle changes.

These include:

  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • being physically active
  • giving up smoking
  • controlling blood cholesterol and sugar levels 

 Source: NHS

‘We found that an individual’s cardiovascular disease risk is associated with the health status and lifestyle of their wife or husband,’ said Beijing Heart Health Research Centre’s Dr Chi Wang, the study author.

‘In addition to sharing lifestyle factors and socioeconomic environment, our study suggests the stress of caring for a spouse with cardiovascular disease may contribute to increased cardiovascular risk.’

The study surveyed around 5,000 husband-and-wife couples who were older than 45 and living in China between 2014 and 2016.

People answered questions about their own health, lifestyle, diet, weight, jobs, and whether they smoked and drank.

It found that 28 per cent of men who were married to a woman with heart disease also had the disease themselves, compared to 13 per cent whose wives didn’t have it – an 2.2-fold increase.

Men were at the highest risk if they had a wife who was obese, smoked or was a stroke survivor.

A similar pattern was seen in women, among whom 21 per cent had heart disease if their husband did, compared to nine per cent of those without sick husbands – a 2.3-fold rise.

Dr Wang added: ‘The health status and risk factors of women, who are the drivers of lifestyle in a majority of families in different cultural backgrounds, seem to affect their husbands to a greater extent than husbands’ risk factors affect wives.’

Past studies have found that being married in the first place can reduce heart disease risk because couples tend to be more financially secure than single people, may live healthier lives and encourage one another to get help or take medicines.

But this research suggests that, if things have already gone wrong for one partner, their partner is more likely to suffer the same fate. 

Long-term stress is known to increase the risk of heart disease because it triggers brain activity that makes the body produce white blood cells, in turn making arteries swell and increasing blood pressure, putting them and the heart under extra strain. 

The research will be presented in full on May 17 at the American College of Cardiology Conference.