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Research Explores How Our Relationships Can Impact Our Health

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New reports published by the Association for Psychological Science take a closer look at physiological and genetic factors that may help to explain the influence that our relationships can have on our physical health.

Does Attachment Get Under the Skin? Adult Romantic Attachment and Cortisol Responses to Stress

Paula R. Pietromonaco, Casey J. DeBuse, and Sally I. Powers

Our adult relationships can affect our overall health in the long-term, but they can also influence how we respond to specific stressors in the short-term.

According to Pietromonaco, DeBuse, and Powers, the relationship between adult attachment and differences in activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis may provide clues to the link between relationships and health.

They present research indicating that individuals with insecure attachments produce more cortisol in response to relationship stressors than do those with secure attachments. Although more research is needed, this may be a mechanism through which relationships affect long-term health outcomes.

Published in the February 2013 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science

Attachment Anxiety Is Linked to Alterations in Cortisol Production and Cellular Immunity

Lisa M. Jaremka, Ronald Glaser, Timothy J. Loving, William B. Malarkey, Jeffrey R. Stowell, and Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser

Close and caring relationships are essential not only for our mental well-being but also our physical well-being. Jaremka and colleagues use attachment theory as a framework for investigating the links among relationships, stress, and health.

People who have high attachment anxiety intensely fear rejection, are dependent on others, and worry about their close relationships. High attachment anxiety has been associated with increased risk for health problems, including stroke and heart attack.

Assessing married couples, the researchers found that participants who had high levels of attachment anxiety produced more cortisol, a stress hormone, than did those with low levels of attachment anxiety. Higher levels of cortisol were in turn associated with fewer numbers of helper T cells and cytotoxic T cells, white blood cells that help fight off pathogens as part of the immune response.

These data suggest that attachment anxiety may have physiological costs, and they provide a glimpse into the pathways through which social relationships affect health.

Published online January 10, 2013 in Psychological Science

Marital Satisfaction and Physical Health: Evidence for an Orchid Effect

Susan C. South and Robert F. Krueger

Despite research linking marital quality and physical health, the ways in which marital quality interacts with genetic influences to affect health outcomes is still unknown.

Using a nationwide sample of twin pairs, South and Krueger estimated the relative influence of genetic and environmental influences on self-reported health at differing levels of marital quality.

Genetic influences demonstrated a U-shaped (curvilinear) effect, such that genetic influences on the variation in self-reported health were greatest for participants who reported either low or high levels of marital satisfaction. Genetic influences on the variation in self-reported health were lowest for participants who reported an average level of marriage satisfaction.

These results provide evidence for a so-called “orchid effect” or a biological sensitivity to context. In this case, individuals who are the most genetically vulnerable to the damaging effects of stressful environments, such as a bad marriage, may also reap the highest rewards from the most advantaged environments (e.g., a good marriage).

Published online January 28, 2013 in Psychological Science