It’s not surprising that toxic relationships are bad for your emotional health, but a new study suggests they could be linked with your physical health, too.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that unpleasant social interactions are associated with increased blood pressure levels, particularly among older women.
The Health Psychology study is based on data from 1,502 people ages 50 and older who were part of the Health and Retirement Study. The study participants answered questionnaires in 2006 detailing the frequency with which they had negative interactions with friends, partners, and family—including criticism, unpleasantness, or disappointment—and also had their blood pressure measured. Then, four years later, researchers measured their blood pressure again.
Over the four-year period, 29 percent of people developed hypertension. Researchers found an association between negative social interactions and increased risk of developing hypertension. Specifically, for every one-point increase on a scale measuring total average negative social interactions, the risk of developing hypertension increased 38 percent. And the effects seemed to be stronger among people ages 51 to 64, compared with people ages 65 and older.
Not all social interactions were alike. Researchers found an association between hypertension risk and negative social interactions with friends and family. However, partner relationships weren't as predictive of hypertension risk, and "children didn't seem to matter at all in terms of being predictive," noted study researcher Rodlescia Sneed.
The reason for why negative social interactions with children didn't seem to have any effect on hypertension risk is that at the older age examined in the study, "you probably have more contact with other kinds of friends and family members than you do with your kids," Sneed explained to HuffPost. "I also think that expectations of your children may be different. So one of the questions that we asked was the extent to which people in their social network make demands on them. But I think there's an expectation as a parent, that your children make demands on you, whereas you might feel differently about other relationships."
There did seem to be sex differences—negative social interactions were associated with hypertension for women in the study, but not for men. Sneed said that a possible reason for this finding is that women tend to put greater weight and expectations on relationships, in general, than men. Past research has indicated, for instance, that "breaking a trust is a lot more important to a woman than it is to a man, on average," Sneed said.
However, it's important to note that researchers simply found an association between negative social interactions and hypertension risk—the study does not show that one proves the other.
Negative social interactions have also been linked with other health ills, including increased inflammation levels. A small study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, showed an association between arguments/personal conflict and increased levels of cytokines, which are associated with inflammation.