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The Link Between Health and Well-being in Couples

Kevyn Burger February 10, 2020

New research provides insight into the nuanced links between older couples and mental health

In middle age and beyond, spouses and partners in committed relationships share more than their lives. Their health and habits—and even the social networks that couples establish—can contribute to their psychological well-being as individuals. That can continue even after the death of one of the partners.

In Sickness and Health: Chronic Conditions in Married Couples

We all know couples that are joined-at-the-hip couch potatoes, enjoying nothing more than streaming a hit show while sharing a loaded pizza. Equally familiar are the couples who regularly hit the gym together, then treat themselves by splitting a post-workout protein shake.

Previous scholarly research confirms that couples often share health habits, for good or ill; that includes what they eat, how much they exercise, their drinking and smoking behaviors, even how often they indulge in fast food. Now researchers from the University of Michigan are looking at the phenomenon known as “spousal interdependence” in a different way.  A new study reviewed data about married couples to see how their chronic health conditions impact their mental health as they age.

“Most research on chronic conditions looks just at individuals. Our interest is with people in midlife and later who are partnered but have different needs and goals in managing their health. We looked at how each partner’s chronic conditions is linked to the couple’s well being,” said Courtney Polenick, assistant professor of psychiatry and faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

About half of adults between 45 and 64 manage two or more chronic conditions like diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure and heart disease; that rises to 80% in those 65 and older.

“We know that couples who share an environment and a routine influence one another,” said Polenick. “Changing health affects each partner’s mental health as they manage symptoms that become more challenging and significant over time.”

The findings, published in December’s Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences suggest the burden of managing discordant chronic conditions takes a higher toll on mental health in older husbands.

The research showed that when both partners suffered with chronic health conditions, depressive symptoms appeared at a significantly higher level in men. At the same time it found “psychological resilience” in older wives who were spousal caretakers while employing self-care management for their own chronic conditions. 

The study relied on long-term data from the Health and Retirement Study, which compiled information from 1,110 opposite-sex married couples in their 50s and older.

Funded by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health, the study is ongoing. Polenick sees plenty of fodder for more work in this area.

“We need to look at the broader picture and gather information about what each person is managing and also what couples jointly manage,” she said. “This study looks at the impact of chronic conditions across a long time frame. We need additional research about how spouses interact to help one another and how couples jointly manage multiple chronic conditions at a daily level.”

Til Death Do Us Part: Surviving LGBT Partner Loss

The vast majority of existing academic research on various aspects of life of couples is drawn from the general population, meaning heterosexual husbands and wives.

Now more social scientists are zeroing in on the lives of LGBT couples. Florida State University’s Jessica Noblitt is studying the psychological impact of widowhood in LGBT people aged 50 and older.

The research looks at the association between partner death and the surviving partner’s depressive symptoms and loneliness as measured on a self-reporting scale. The study uses data from the Aging with Pride: National Health, Aging, and Sexuality/Gender Study, a nationally representative sample of 2,400 LGBT adults ranging in age from 50 to over 100.

Not surprisingly, the death of a partner is one of life’s most stressful events. But Noblitt admits that one of the conclusions in her research surprised her.

“In the heterosexual population, research shows that men fare worse than women when their partners die. But in LGBT subjects, the experience of loss doesn’t appear to differ by gender,” she said.

“We can speculate that gay men have social networks in their community and outside their partners that they can rely on. Compared to straight men, they have more people who can provide emotional support.”

Noblitt sees a need for original research on partner loss in LGBT couples. “We need more data to fill the information gap with the LGBT population.”

This story is part of the special editorial series “The Landscape of Love, Sex & Friendship As We Age.”

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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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