Unreasonable spouse? Demanding kids? Argumentative friends? If it sometimes feels like these stressors are killing you, new research suggests you may be right.
Middle-aged adults who frequently fought with their husband or wife were more than twice as likely to die at a relatively young age compared to people who rarely fought, according to a study published online Thursday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Frequent fights with friends were even more hazardous – people who fell into this category were 2.6 times more likely to die prematurely than people who got along with their pals. Worst of all were persistent fights with neighbors, the researchers found. These types of argumentative people were more than three times more likely to die prematurely than the go-with-the-flow types.
Even when fights didn’t break out into the open, simply worrying about friends or loved ones or stewing over their demands could be enough to shorten one’s life. People who “always” or “often” fretted about their spouse were almost twice as likely to die during the course of the study compared to those who seldom fretted. In addition, those who expended lots of negative mental energy on their children were 55% more likely to die prematurely compared to those who didn’t worry about their kids very often.
All of these associations between stressful social relations and the risk of early death were stronger for men than for women, the researchers found. They were also stronger for people who were not working outside the home.
The study was based on data from nearly 10,000 Danish adults who were between the ages of 36 and 52 in 2000. All of them answered questions about their conflicts with and worries about their partners, children, other family, friends and neighbors. About 6% of them said they had frequent conflicts with their spouse; 6% had frequent conflicts with their children; 2% had frequent conflicts with other family members; and 1% had frequent conflicts with friends. Worries and demands that didn’t escalate to outright conflict were slightly more common.
In addition, the researchers used government health files to see how many of the study participants had died through the end of 2011. Over the 11 years of the study, 4% of the women and 6% of the men died (most often of cancer, but also due to cardiovascular disease, alcohol abuse and accidents, among other causes).
Those deaths were not evenly spread among people who experienced lots of conflict and people who didn’t. The more conflict in a person’s life, the more likely he or she had died, the researchers found. This probably wasn’t a coincidence.
“Personality has been shown to influence social relationships and mortality,” they wrote. People with disagreeable personalities are likely to have more stress in their lives, and stress prompts the body to make molecules like cortisol and pro-inflammatory cytokines that can make people sick, they added.
If public health policymakers are looking for new ways to reduce premature deaths in their communities, the researchers had a suggestion: Offer classes on conflict management.