In Sickness and in Health: Couples Often Share Heart Disease Risks

By Michael Horwitz, DO, Cardiologist, Virtua Cardiology – Willingboro

Couples share a lot more than romance: the same values, interests, and maybe even sports teams. But they often also share the same behaviors and risk factors that can lead to cardiovascular disease.

A study published in fall 2020 in the journal JAMA Network Open looked at 5,400 U.S. couples enrolled in an employee wellness program. Researched evaluated their likelihood of developing heart disease using risk factors outlined in the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 program: smoking status, physical activity, healthy diet, total cholesterol, blood pressure, fasting blood sugar, and body mass index.

Participants then were categorized individually and as couples as poor, intermediate, or ideal for each risk factor and overall.

About 80% of couples had less-than-ideal scores for heart disease risk, primarily due to their unhealthy diets and lack of exercise.

Partner Influence
While age and family history play a role, lifestyle greatly influences whether you will actually develop heart disease. Risk factors such high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and smoking are connected to the choices we make.

Couples often share eating and exercise habits. If one partner eats fatty foods and spends evenings sitting on the couch, the other probably will, too.

But if one partner makes a habit of mainly eating fresh fruits and vegetables and going for daily walks or bike rides, those good habits can rub off on the other as well. After a while, you’ll both be in a healthy routine.

Team Up for Health
By working as a couple, both of you can lower your risk for cardiovascular disease. Try to:

  • Cook more meals together. Cooking at home helps you to eat healthier and save money—and cooking is a lot more enjoyable with company in the kitchen. Focus on recipes featuring fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products.
  • Make fitness-oriented plans. Aim for at least 30 minutes of daily exercise. Find activities to do together, like walking, biking, dancing, or virtual exercise classes.

  • Stop smoking. One study found that when couples attended smoking cessation programs together, their odds of successfully quitting were six times higher than for people who attempted to break the habit alone.

Heart disease prevention should not focus on the individual, but instead on the entire household. If one person has an increased risk, other members of the family likely do as well. Having that family support system, where everyone benefits from the changes in diet and exercise, can really make a difference.

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Updated March 23, 2021

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