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The Disease at the Heart—and Arteries—of Polygamy

Polygamists are four times more likely to suffer heart disease than others, one researcher says, though the underlying causes are unclear.
(Photo: Mincemeat/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Mincemeat/Shutterstock)

Doctors know that marriage can be good for your heart; or rather, a bad marriage can be bad for your cardiovascular health. Now, a cardiologist in Saudi Arabia reports, it appears polygamy's pretty terrible for the ticker as well.

Amin Daoulah, a physician and researcher at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, based that conclusion on a study of 687 married men who'd been referred for a coronary angiography at five hospitals in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Apart from apparently unhealthy hearts, those men presented an opportunity to study marriage and heart health in a new way: about a third of them had more than one wife.

About 62 percent of men with just one wife had coronary artery disease, but among men with three or four wives, every single one had the disease.

Even a cursory analysis of the data revealed a surprising correlation between polygamy and heart disease. About 62 percent of men with just one wife had coronary artery disease, for example, but among men with three or four wives, every single one had the disease. Though the overall incidence was lower, a similar pattern emerged for left main disease (LMD), in which half or more of the left main artery is blocked, and multivessel disease (MVD), in which several blood vessels are partially blocked.

While there were substantial lifestyle differences between men with one wife and men with two or more wives—on average, polygamists had higher incomes and were older, more likely to live in rural areas, and more likely to have had heart bypass surgery in the past—that didn't have much effect on the results. Even after taking those differences into account, Daoulah calculated that men with multiple wives were 4.6 times more likely to suffer coronary artery disease, 2.6 times more likely to suffer MVD, and 3.5 times more likely to suffer LMD.

Still, those results should be taken with a hefty grain of salt. The men who participated were not the healthiest bunch to begin with—the average age was 59 years old, 56 percent had diabetes, 57 percent had high blood pressure, and 45 percent had a history of coronary artery disease. Daoulah also didn't have data on exercise habits, diets, the intimacy of marital relationships, or genetics. All of those factors play a role in whether somebody develops heart disease, and not taking them into account could potentially bias the results.

For the moment, that means polygamy is just an eyebrow-raising indicator, but not necessarily a cause, of heart disease. "The problem is coronary heart disease and polygamy is only an association and not necessarily a root cause, therefore further studies are required to verify the link," Daoulah said in a statement. He presented the study yesterday at the 2015 Asian Pacific Society of Cardiology Congress in Abu Dhabi.

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