We all know that having a good relationship with your family is important for a lot of reasons, but what if you were told that one of them was to maintain good physical health as you grow older? Well, this is a suggestion a new study published in the is making…
According to the study, individuals who have a strained relationship with their extended family (including mom, dad, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents) are more likely to develop a chronic illness than those who have a strained relationship with their intimate partner(s)s/spouse(s).
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“Most often, researchers focus on romantic relationships, especially marriage, presuming they likely have more of a powerful effect on health,” said Prof. Sarah Woods, lead author of the study and assistant professor of family and community medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, in a statement.
“Family relationships are long and emotionally intense. These are people you are connected to you forever. If you are sensitive to emotional stress, then being bathed in that stress would over time wear and tear on your body.”
How did they reach that conclusion?
To get to this conclusion, researchers looked at data from just under 3 000 individuals collected between 1995 and 2014. On three occasions over these years (between 1995 and 1996, 2004 and 2006, 2013 and 2014), the participants each rated the state of their interactions with their families and spouses.
On family, the respondents were asked questions like: “How often do members of your family criticise you?” and “How much can you rely on your family if you have a serious problem?”
On spouses, the respondents were asked questions like: “How often does your spouse or partner argue with you?” and “How much does your spouse or partner appreciate you?”
The participants’ health was measured looking at the total number of chronic conditions suffered 12 months before each of the three times their data was collected.
Through this analysis, the researchers found that there was a strong association with strained family interactions and a greater number of chronic illnesses.
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“We found that family and emotional climate had a big effect on overall health, including the development or worsening of chronic conditions such as stroke and headaches over the 20-year span of midlife,” Prof. Woods said.
Interestingly, they found no significant link with intimate partner relationships and later health. This was something that “stunned” the researchers.
As alluded to earlier in the article, the researchers believe that this is the case because family relationships go on forever, versus intimate relationships which can simply end.
“The vast majority of the people in the study had living parents or siblings, thus their relationship with a spouse or intimate partner was less likely to be as long as that of their family members,” Prof. Patricia Robertson, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Therefore, the emotional intensity of these relationships may be greater, so much so that people experience more of an effect on their health and wellbeing.”
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Why does this matter?
The researchers believe that these findings are critical particularly for healthcare practitioners because they highlight the importance of considering family relationships when assessing and treating patients.
“For adults who already have a chronic condition, a negative family emotional climate may increase their poor health and, conversely, supportive family members may help improve their health outcomes,” Prof. Woods concluded.