Emotional ties being linked to health

December 15, 1992|By New York Times News Service

People with many friends or family ties tend to live longer than loners. Heart attack victims who have emotional support survive longer than those who do not. The mind has many subtle influences on the body, and a spate of new studies are seeking to explore further the nature of this mysterious axis.

"Your closest relationships seem to matter most for your health," said Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist at Ohio State University Medical School who has just completed a study showing that marital fights can weaken the immune systems of couples.

She and other researchers are trying to find out how the body turns states of mind like close relationships into a biological advantage that improves health. The evidence to date points to physiological mechanisms in the immune and cardiovascular system.

"What is it that happens in a social network that makes such a difference for health?" asked Dr. Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University. To find the answers, Dr. Cohen joined forces with Dr. Jay Kaplan, a psychiatrist at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., who studies stress in macaque monkeys.

In their research, some 40 male macaques were randomly assigned either to stable or shifting groups, the latter having three or four new monkeys added to their cage every month. For macaques, joining a new group of monkeys is highly agitating and stressful; the males threaten each other until a dominance hierarchy is established.

Yet even under the duress of the struggle for dominance, some monkeys remained friendly. "These monkeys touched other monkeys more, groomed their cage mates or simply sat close to them," Dr. Cohen said. "In monkeys, those are all gestures of affiliation."

After 26 months of shifting groups and fights for dominance, the friendliest monkeys were found to have stronger immune responses while the most hostile and aggressive monkeys had the poorest.

Dr. Cohen's results, reported in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science, suggest that "affiliation protects animals from the potentially pathogenic influence of chronic stress," he observed.

The study of monkeys enables researchers to perform experiments that might be unethical in human subjects, like testing whether the friendlier monkeys, with their better immune responses, are in fact less susceptible to viruses.

If friendly intimacy protects the immune system from stress, consider what a fight does. "How couples handle their disagreements seems to affect their immune system," said Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser.

She has been studying couples with her husband, Dr. Ronald Glaser, an immunologist and associate director for research at Ohio State University Medical School.

In their study, 90 couples were brought into a laboratory and asked to resolve an issue of disagreement. Continuous blood monitoring for 24 hours allowed their immune responses to be measured during and after the discussion.

"We found a far stronger effect on the couples' immune system than we ever expected," said Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser. "Those couples who had most hostility and negativity during the discussions showed a drop on eight immune measures for the next 24 hours. The more hostile you are during a marital argument, the harder it is on your immune system."

Since the couples in the laboratory tended to have rather mild disputes, Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser says, she expects the immune defects would be even more pronounced in real marriage spats.

She and her husband found the opposite is also true, that good relationships seemed to protect the human immune system from stress, just as in monkeys.

Among medical students under the stress of examinations at the end of the semester, those who reported close relationships with family and friends had a stronger immune response to vaccination.

It is not, of course, the sheer number of relationships in a person's life that seem to offer a buffer against stress so much as the quality of those connections.

For example, a study of college students found that the more roommates disliked each other, the more often they came down with colds and the flu and visited a physician.

"It's the most important relationships in your life, the people you see day in and day out, that seem to be crucial for health," said Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychologist at Ohio State University who did the roommate study with Mary Snydersmith, a graduate student.

But not all relationships are of equal significance.

"If you have a romantic partner, we found, how you're getting along with your partner matters far more for your health than does how you like your roommate," Dr. Cacioppo said.

A study at the Johns Hopkins University found that when couples learned "fair fighting" skills, blood pressure was lowered in hypertensive husbands.

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