Long-term partners share a lot of things in life: their living space, their travel schedules, maybe even their hairbrush and toothpaste. The longer two people have been together, the more their lifestyles start to merge into one cohesive unit. This is great in terms of setting goals (you’ve got a built-in accountability partner), but not so great when one partner is a negative influence on the other.
We’re not just talking about the latest Netflix binge they talked you into. “When you look at couples who have been married for a period of time, [lifestyle] habits and diets converge,” says John A. Osborne, M.D., director of cardiology for the LowT Centers in Dallas, TX. This can often mean couples have shared risk for chronic diseases.
A new study in BMJ Open adds to a growing body of evidence on this topic. Researchers found that the wives of men being treated for major heart disease risk factors (hypertension, diabetes, and dyslipidemia) were significantly likely to have the same diseases themselves. This might sound scary, but there’s a silver lining: It means if you get your health back on track, there's a good chance your partner will, too. It’s a win-win for you both!
For Better or For Worse
Raj Khandwalla, M.D., director of cardiovascular education at the Cedars-Sinai Smidt Heart Institute in Los Angeles, explains that couples share similar environmental pressures, which can be good or bad for their health. “They live in the same place, eat similar foods, face the same financial pressures, and may even have similar habits of drinking or smoking,” he says. “Even if one partner smokes, the other will be exposed to secondhand smoke.”
Dr. Khandwalla notes the importance of spousal encouragement to help heart disease patients adopt healthier habits. “In my experience treating cardiac patients, I have seen that spouses who encourage heart-healthy habits by making doctor's appointments and taking medications can have a tremendous impact,” he says. “Changing your diet or quitting smoking isn't easy. Often the difference between making a successful change in one's habits can be a supportive spouse.”
Brandon & Seckeita’s Story
For Brandon and Seckeita Lewis of Dallas, TX, this topic is personal. Brandon is an American Heart Association Know Diabetes by Heart Ambassador who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2015. This diagnosis also signaled an increased risk for heart disease. Brandon knew that changing his diet would be the first step toward turning his health around, but this change couldn’t be made without the support of his wife, Seckeita.
“As a married couple, our meals are prepared and shared together, and that’s whether we agree on what the meal should be, healthy or not,” Brandon says. “Eating healthier meals matters. If it’s bad for my heart, it can’t possibly be good for hers.” Both partners have struggled with obesity, and Brandon notes that their eating habits were not helping either of them. “In avoiding the onset of cardiovascular disease, we are learning that we must be on the same page…of the same cookbook,” he says. “It means developing and maintaining the healthier daily habits of your partner, like going for walks together when one doesn’t feel like it.”
Luckily, Seckeita was supportive from day one, and they began a new journey to better health together. “I am optimistic that our awareness of the issue and desire to be better together will prevail,” Brandon says. In fact, Brandon has committed to losing 100 pounds over the next several years, a journey he is chronicling in an independent film.
What Partners Can Do
There are plenty of things a partner can do to help their loved one reverse cardiovascular disease. Seckeita recommends starting small. “Little changes make a difference,” she says. “If there is a way to make healthier choices fun and something you can do together, we can work them more easily into our lifestyle.” For instance, rather than labeling physical activity as exercise, the Lewises plan fun excursions like evening walks, nights of dancing, or a trip to an amusement park or shopping center. “Turning those habits into routine is where we can make a lasting impact.”
Here’s a handy list of tips to try with your partner:
- Approach conversations with love and without judgment. “Gentle, non-confrontational conversations are key,” Brandon says. If your partner makes a poor health decision, gently explain to them why you’ll be making a different choice. “Say no with your actions,” he says. “Go for that walk after dinner whether your spouse wants to or not. Do not diverge and abandon your plan. Instead, help them realize how good it makes you feel and that they are ultimately missing out. Show them in the nicest of ways that you will neither join nor co-sign on their misbehavior.”
- Get competitive in the kitchen. This is the perfect excuse to stage your own version of “Top Chef”! “Tapping into each other’s competitive streak can also help,” Seckeita says. “Kitchen cookoffs to challenge who can make a healthy meal that the family likes … and other shenanigans can make getting healthy together more fun.”
- Get checked out for the same health conditions. “If your spouse has heart disease, you need to double check and make sure that you’re okay as well,” Dr. Osborne suggests. Schedule your own appointment ASAP to check on your heart health, even if you have no personal history of cardiovascular disease.
- Make your home into a health-promoting zone. The more you can incorporate healthy choices into your immediate surroundings, the easier it will be to help your partner make these changes. “Creating an environment that promotes health, including a good diet, regular exercise, no tobacco use, and compliance with medications, is very important to ensure that we can prevent cardiovascular events,” Dr. Osborne says. The spouse or partner can play a huge role in helping with this, from buying fresh foods to going on daily walks to laying medications out on the counter.
Everyone could use a cheerleader, especially when going through a health crisis. Small lifestyle changes can mean big payoff for your heart health, not to mention your bond as a couple.