Wendy Birmingham and Adam Howard with Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Psychology Department
Epidemiological research indicates that both the quality and quantity of social relationships significantly protects individuals from various causes of morbidity and mortality. For most adults, marriage and children play a central role in their social lives. Social relationships have been reliably associated with important long-term health outcomes including coronary heart disease (CHD). One pathway by which social relationships may influence health is via ambulatory blood pressure (ABP) during daily life. Research examining marriage alone has found that married individuals fare better psychologically and physiologically; additionally, research including children as a variable has shown that children have an impact on the satisfaction of the marital relationship. However, less information is available on the impact children have on parental health, specifically blood pressure.
The present study examined the influence of relationship quality on 24-hour ABP among 100 healthy married couples. 101 participants answered a questionnaire detailing their parental status and their roles as primary and secondary caretakers. ABP was assessed on these 87 individuals. In total there were 101 Married couples with the ages spaning 20-65 (m=31.16). All participants had no prior history of cardiovascular problems, no hypertension or medications with cardiovascular component and no psychological disorders. The baseline blood pressure was assessed in laboratory, where the participants were then hooked up to a 24 hour ambulatory blood pressure monitor. This device took a reading approximately every 20 minutes during waking hours and hourly through the night. In addition to wearing a blood pressure monitor each couple was also required to complete a packet of questionnaires including: the Children Survey: number of children and childcare arrangements, from which our data was extracted.
Inconsistent with our theory that the stressors inherent in the role of caretaker of children would raise ambulatory systolic blood pressure and counter the social benefits provided, we found individuals with children demonstrated significantly lower average systolic blood pressure (p=.0018) than their childless counterparts. We also found that participants with children demonstrated significantly lower daily systolic blood pressure (p=.004), and lower sleeping systolic blood pressure (p=.028).
These results highlight the complexities in understanding the influence of social relationships on long-term health and indicate that further studies into parental-children health benefits would be beneficial.