The following is a summary of “Your suffering is my stressor: Proinflammatory gene expression rises with spousal distress in middle-aged and older couples,” published in the July 2023 issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology by Wilson et al.
The quality of one’s marital relationship is associated with inflammation-related medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Laboratory-based investigations suggest that hostility exhibited during conflicts between spouses can lead to increased inflammation in the body. However, the limited focus has been on the inflammatory response following other marital interactions. The emotional distress experienced by a spouse is a significant yet often disregarded factor in the lives of middle-aged and older couples, mainly as conflicts decrease and social networks become smaller.
To investigate the associations between spousal distress and alterations in proinflammatory gene expression, a group of 38 individuals between the ages of 40 and 81 were subjected to an experiment. During the investigation, these individuals observed their spouse recount a distressing personal memory out loud. Before and following this activity, the participants rated their emotional state. Additionally, blood samples were collected from the participants at the beginning of the experiment and twice after the task. Furthermore, the participants were asked to share their distressing memories and discuss a marital issue during the intervening period.
Individuals whose spouses revealed their distressing memory with heightened emotional intensity exhibited significant increases in proinflammatory gene expression at 30-40 minutes and 80-90 minutes following the task. The correlation was replicated for individuals whose negative affect heightened significantly in response to their partner’s disclosure. The results remained consistent when considering the impact of behavior in the other emotional tasks, race, gender, age, alcohol consumption, smoking, presence of other medical conditions, and sagittal abdominal diameter. These groundbreaking findings reveal spousal distress as a crucial factor within the marital context that can potentially exacerbate inflammation-related health risks.