What behaviors shared by couples can put the heart at risk

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The behavior patterns of each member can be strongly linked to those of the other, according to a study.

Risk factors for heart health, such as smoking, unhealthy diets, and minimal physical activity, may seem individual, but for people living as a couple, the behavior patterns of each partner can be strongly linked to those of the other.

A new study led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in the United States, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, evaluated the cardiovascular risk factors and the behaviors of more than 5,000 couples who participated in an employee wellness program offered by the Quest Diagnostics company.

The team used various metrics to rank people with risk factors and ideal or non-ideal behaviors, and found that in 8 out of 10 couples both people fell into the not ideal category for cardiovascular health, with the majority sharing unhealthy diets and lack of exercise.

The findings point to the potential importance of addressing healthy behaviors for both members. “We know a lot about cardiovascular risk factors for people, but not for couples,” acknowledges corresponding author Samia Mora of the Brigham Divisions of Preventive Medicine and Cardiovascular Medicine.

“We were hoping to see some shared risk factorsBut it was a surprise to see that the vast majority of couples were in a not ideal category for cardiovascular health in general, “he says.

Mora and the rest of the team examined data from Quest Diagnostics, which offered a voluntary health assessment program to its employees. The researchers analyzed data from 5,364 couples (10,728 participants) who joined the program between October 2014 and August 2015.

The researchers determined whether each individual was in the ideal, intermediate or bad category for each of Life’s Simple 7 behaviors and risk factors defined by the American Heart Association (LS7): smoking, body mass index, physical activity, healthy diet score, total cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose on an empty stomach.

The team also gave each participant a overall score cardiovascular (CV) health. The data were obtained from questionnaires, examinations and laboratory tests.

When examined individually, more than half of the participants were in the ideal category for three LS7 risk factors and behaviors: smoking status (never smoked), total cholesterol (poor categories of BMI, physical activity, and health score CV: Only 12% of the participants were in the ideal category for cardiovascular health.

When the two members were assessed together, more than half of the couples shared all of the LS7 risk factors and behaviors, as well as the CV health score. When one member was in the ideal category, the second member was more likely to be as well. The only factor that was not met was total cholesterol.

But 79% of couples were in the not ideal category for cardiovascular health score, largely driven by a unhealthy diet and lack of exercise. The team found that when one member had quit smoking, lost weight, increased their level of physical activity, or improved their diet, the other member was more likely to have done so.

But over the five-year study period, the couples’ health, risk factors, and behavior patterns remained relatively unchanged overall. Beyond modest changes in blood pressure and fasting glucose, the team found no significant changes in the factors.

“Our data suggest that risk factors and behaviors go together in couples,” says Mora. Instead of thinking about interventions for individuals, it may be useful to think about interventions for couples or whole families. And it’s important for people to think about how their health and behaviors can influence the health of the people they live with. Improving our own health can help others, “the researchers concluded.

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