URBANA, Ill. — It’s not uncommon for news outlets to feature stories about couples who have spent more than 50 or 60 years together — only to pass away minutes apart. To say that happily married seniors share one heart together may be more than just a figure out speech. It turns out that when old couples are physically close, their hearts beat together, according to a new study.
As couples grow old together, their interdependence grows, and often, they become each other’s primary source of physical and emotional support. It is known that long-term marriages can have a profound effect on health and well-being, but the benefits do depend on the quality of the relationship.
Researchers from the University of Illinois say that when aging partners are close to each other, their heart rates synchronize in complex patterns of interaction. “Relationship researchers typically ask people how they’re doing and assume they can recall properly and give meaningful answers,” says lead author Brian Ogolsky, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the university, in a statement. “But as couples age and have been together for a long time, they laugh when we ask them how satisfied or how committed they are. When they have been married for 30 or 40 years, they feel that indicates commitment in itself.
“We were looking for more objective ways to measure relationship dynamics, and we know that being around other people has psychological benefits. So, physical proximity seemed like a strong candidate,” Ogolsky adds.
Just being close to another person isn’t always the best idea and for the couple to reap the benefits, it has to depend on the nature of the interaction, researchers say. Closeness, in the context of a conflict, is very different from closeness in the context of loving interactions.
Similarly, changes in heart rate can be positive or negative.
“We’re not focusing on cause and effect, but on co-regulation, which happens when heart rates move in an asynchronous pattern,” says Ogolsky. “That is, when the partners are close, their heart rate patterns indicate an interaction that is collectively meaningful in some way.”
How older couples’ heart rates changed during real-life scenarios
The study included ten heterosexual, married couples, aged 64 to 88, who had been in their relationships for 14 to 65 years. They were each followed by a researcher for two weeks, who continuously tracked their heart rates and their proximity to each other when at home.
Participants wore a Fitbit to measure their heart rate and a small proximity-sensing device. The team installed sensors in the home that allowed them to monitor the devices and observe how physically close the spouses were to each other. By setting the study up in this way, the researchers were able to correlate all three measures, each partner’s heart rate and the couple’s proximity in real-time.
The researchers called the couples each morning to remind them to put on the Fitbit and tracking devices, and again in the evening to survey them about their health and well-being. They also polled them on their relationship dynamics throughout the day.
“Our first step was to see if heart rate and proximity are correlated over time,” says Ogolsky. “We looked at the husband’s heart rate with proximity, the wife’s heart rate with proximity, and the two heart rates with each other. We also wanted to know if all three-time series worked together to give us unique information.
“Can we use any of them to predict the others? And the answer is yes,” he continues. “All three-time series need to be included for us to be able to predict any one of them well.”
The study’s findings indicate a “lead-lag relationship” in the synchronization of their heart rates, where one partner leads and the other follows. Sometimes the wife’s heart rate would lead the change and at other times, the husband’s would.
“This suggests a delicate balance. When one partner triggers the other partner, they start a unique couple-level dance that affects their physiology and their patterns throughout the day,” explains Ogolsky.
‘Micro-processes’ may be real key to how spouses’ interactions impact them
Because of the small number of participants, the study didn’t include comparisons between couples. But even within the couples, no clear patterns emerged.
“We found each day is a unique context that changes depending on circumstances,” says Ogolsky. “Couple interactions, their attitudes, behaviors, whether they’re close to each other or far away, change all the time. Even across 14 days, couples are not consistent enough in these kinds of objective patterns to allow us to make any couple-level conclusions. We can only make day-level predictions.”
According to the research team, this finding is an important contribution to the body of knowledge on relationships.
“If we really want to understand the unique patterns of interaction that happen within couples, we need to start focusing our attention on micro-processes; the small interaction patterns that accumulate over a day,” concludes Ogolsky. “Those tell us about the nature of how couples’ interactions play out from moment to moment.”
The study is published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
South West News Service writer Georgia Lambert contributed to this report.