It's possible to nag somebody to death, and domestic arguments can be fatal—even when there's no physical violence.
It's long been known that having loved ones in your life can help keep you feeling, well, full of life. A literature review of 148 studies published in PLoS Medicine four years ago uncovered an "increased likelihood of survival" for those who enjoyed "stronger social relationships," regardless of their age, gender, health condition at the beginning of each of the studies, or even their eventual cause of death.
But what happens when family members are a source of constant stress in somebody's life, providing more tension than tenderness? Previous research has found that stressful family relations can be unhealthy; the variable has been linked to endocrine regulation problems, poor cardiovascular health, and immune deficiencies. Now, researchers in Denmark, who studied data gathered on nearly 10,000 middle-aged Danes over 11 years, have reported that family stresses can not only contribute to health problems—they can become lethal.
Those in stressful family situations could find it harder to stop smoking, may drink more alcohol, and exercise less frequently than others.
According to the findings, published last week in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, frequent worries and demands from partners or children were associated with a 50 to 100 percent increased chance of dying during the period analyzed. "Frequent conflicts" with these family members, meanwhile, could make somebody two to three times more likely to die.
"I think these potential stressors in life are common to humans all over the world," says Rikke Lund, an associate professor in the University of Copenhagen's public health department. "I have no reason to believe that the health consequences of serious worries or demands, and conflicts with social relations, should be an isolated Danish phenomenon."
The researchers analyzed data gathered during a national sampling program undertaken in 2000. Those Danes who were surveyed as part of the program were asked, among other things, how frequently their family members, friends, and neighbors demanded too much of them or seriously worried them. They were also asked how frequently they experienced "conflicts" with those around them.
The researchers compared this data with information from a death registry 11 years later, by which point four percent of the women and six percent of men who took part in the study had died.
"Conflicts with any type of social relation were associated with higher mortality risk, and those who always or often experienced conflicts with their social relations were at markedly higher risk of premature death," the researchers write. "Generally, adjustment for depressive symptoms and emotional support at baseline only attenuated the associations slightly and did not change the overall conclusions."
Men who endured worries and demands from their partners were especially likely to die during the study period, the researchers found. But why?
Lund says those in stressful family situations could find it harder to stop smoking, may drink more alcohol, and exercise less frequently than others. She added that "stress has a number of consequences," both physiological, such as increased levels of blood pressure and higher levels of stress hormones, and psychological, such as depression.