Can close relationships really improve the health of women and men with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)? They can, according to recent research by Shelley Kasle, PhD, research assistant professor, Arizona Arthritis Center, at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Recent studies, funded in part by the Arthritis Foundation, are part of Kasle’s larger research project, Close Relationships and Arthritis Studies (formerly called the Couples and Arthritis Studies), which seeks to understand how relationship quality may be linked with health outcomes for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their spouses/partners.

In the initial study, which focused on women with RA and their relationships with spouses/partners, Kasle examined medical records and administered questionnaires to more than 100 coupled patients. She wanted to understand the level of mutuality in close relationships, “the degree to which people are interested in knowing what the other person is thinking and feeling,” and its impact on health, she says.

“Mutuality is not the same thing as love,” explains Kasle. “People may love each other, but their communication patterns may not fit the definition of mutuality.”

In a parallel study, funded by the American College of Rheumatology Research and Education Foundation, Kasle focused on men with RA.

For both women and men, the studies examined physical and psychological health outcomes of married/partnered patients with RA in relation to their perceptions of their own responsiveness (self-mutuality), their partner's responsiveness (partner-mutuality), and combined responsiveness (overall mutuality), and sought to understand the potential male and female differences in the links between mutuality and depressive symptoms.

Meaningful results

In general, results for men and women with RA were similar.

Women who reported high levels of overall, self- and partner-mutuality reported less anxiety and depression, and less arthritis impact (a measure of symptoms and impact on  daily activities). In addition women reporting more mutuality reported less physical disability. Physical disability didn’t attain statistical significance for men.

Findings from these studies have been published in the peer-reviewed journal, Arthritis Care & Research, July 2008.

“When you have a chronic illness, there are health and quality-of-life considerations,” says Kasle. “Just as your doctor might prescribe physical exercise to enhance health, my findings suggest that a prescription to engage in fulfilling relationships might similarly be good for your health and quality of life.”