Secondhand Health Hazards

PHOTO: Recent research shows that a slew of health problems and their side effects can be transferred from one person to another.
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By now you know to avoid a roommate who smokes, lest her carcinogenic cloud take you down. But you might not know to avoid shacking up with a snorer. Here's why you should think twice: Recent research shows that a slew of health problems and their side effects can be transferred from one person to another, according to the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity--meaning that friends' or relatives' medical issues, or their disregard for their own well-being, can rub off on you! Read on to learn the surprising ways unhealthy behaviors can spread.

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Stress

If you have a coworker with a bad case of desk rage, you might unknowingly pick up--and internalize--her tension, says Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at UCLA. The same goes for a partner who offloads his stress. When that happens, says Karney, "you may not have the emotional resources to help, and you end up just irritating each other and increasing both of your stress levels."

Research shows that transmitted stress makes for less-satisfying relationships, but more important, it can lead to spikes in blood pressure and heart rate, says Tracey A. Revenson, a psychology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Catching a case of chronic stress can put you at risk for insomnia, muscle tension, and eventually, cardiac illness.

Keep your cool by trying not to take other people's stress-fueled actions personally, says Karney. Let them know their anxiety is rubbing off on you and suggest stress-busting activities that will benefit you both. For example, a recent study found that doing word puzzles may reduce stress by 54 percent.

Or, if an office mate's nerves are getting on your nerves, try suggesting a post-work sweat session. Almost nothing beats stress like exercise, which can limit your body's levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In fact, just 20 minutes of moderate activity--walking, hiking, biking--three times a week can help buffer stress; the more often you work out, the bigger the benefits, says Jennifer Hurst, an associate professor of exercise science at Truman State University.

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Your body needs a full night's rest to mend damaged cells, consolidate memories, and recharge the immune system, says James Wyatt, director of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. And it's hard to get that when your man is sawing more logs than a lumberjack. One-quarter of people who share a bed with a snorer lose 49 minutes of sleep per night, on average--and alarmingly, just one night's interrupted sleep can have a detrimental effect, says Wyatt.

The resulting irritability, headaches, and impaired coordination could put you at risk for accidents (including ones that go beyond clumsy toe stubs, such as falling asleep at the wheel).

Before you grab your pillow and head for the couch--or launch him off the side of the bed with a swift kick--try a few simple solutions. Snoring happens when air gets caught in the passage between the throat and mouth, causing that soft tissue to vibrate, loudly. Alcohol makes matters worse because it relaxes the throat muscles that keep that passage open.

Sleeping with a snorer? Your body needs a full night's rest to recharge your immune system.

So encourage him to minimize the pre-bedtime boozing. You can also ask your guy to sleep on his side, says Wyatt; this position prevents the tongue from sliding back and clogging the airway. Allergens may also amp up the after-hours noise in your bedroom, and dust and pet dander can inflame oral passages, leaving less room for smooth inhalations and exhalations.

If nothing seems to work--and you lose sleep even with the aid of earplugs or a white-noise machine--consider asking your doctor about the new prescription Provent Therapy, in which over-the-nostril adhesive strips work with the body's natural breathing rhythm to keep airways open.

Weight Gain

You've heard of love chub, but chum chub might be much worse for you. While having an obese husband ups your own risk for obesity by 37 percent, having a hefty friend increases your chances of tipping the scale by 57 percent, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine. Basically, people tend to eat how and what their friends eat, says study coauthor James Fowler, Ph.D., of the University of California at San Diego. "Our social networks help us develop our ideas about what body sizes and eating behaviors are appropriate," he explains.

Which doesn't mean you should give your heavier friends the heave-ho. Not only are there important benefits to maintaining strong friendships (studies show supportive relationships can add years to your life), but you can also help each other get back on track. Try starting a healthy-weight buddy system by swapping recipe ideas and pairing up for workouts. "A gym full of strangers may not help you stick to a fitness plan, because you don't have deep social ties to anyone there," says Fowler. "But if you and a friend make a change together, you'll both be more likely to succeed."

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You've probably heard the commercial: Depression hurts. But now it's known that the pain extends beyond the person wrestling with the condition. Being in a relationship with a depressed person can make you at least 25 percent more likely to also become depressed, says clinical psychologist Michael Yapko, author of Depression Is Contagious.

"Women tend to feel more responsible than men and think, If I were a better partner, he'd be happier," says Yapko, and such self-criticism can lead to headaches, stress, and anxiety. What's more, depressed men may become irritable or try to cope by resorting to substance abuse or infidelity--all of which can wreak havoc on your own well-being, says Andrea K. Wittenborn, an assistant professor of human development at Virginia Tech.

The best way to be supportive without getting sucked into a downward spiral is to set clear boundaries on what you're actually responsible for. "Spouses of depressed husbands often take on a caretaking role and limit their socializing, which is bad for their own mental health," explains Wittenborn. Make sure your social life includes plans--friends' nights out, yoga classes, etc.--that will give you a chance to unwind and connect with others.

Heavy Drinking

Happy hour loses its meaning when one of your pals goes overboard. And the more you hang out with boozehounds, the worse it is for you. Spending time around heavy drinkers increases your own alcohol consumption by 70 percent, according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Especially if you don't see just how out of control the swilling has gotten. Studies show that people tend to overestimate how much others are imbibing, which makes them feel as if they need to keep up with what's "normal." And that's a big problem because regular binge drinking--four or more drinks on one occasion--increases your risk for liver disease, brain disease, and certain cancers.

But you don't have to choose between a healthy life and a social life. If you have plans to get together with keg-stand-loving pals (or a group of sophisticated wine drinkers), arrive a little later than normal, as one less hour typically equals at least one less cocktail, says William Corbin, a psychology professor at Arizona State University. Before you get there, set a limit on how many drinks you'll have, and stick to a one-drink-one-water rule, which will both slow you down and fill you up. If you think you still might get swept up in the party mood, consider a little financial prevention: Leave your credit card at home and bring enough cash for only a couple of cocktails.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Being with a guy who's willing to scrub the bathroom floor sounds amazing--unless, that is, he insists on doing it every day. About 3 million Americans have OCD (nearly all are diagnosed before age 30), a mental health problem that can, for example, cause a person to get fixated on completing a chore over and over again, says Jonathan Abramowitz, associate chair of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Living with someone who has OCD can get in the way of your relationship and life," says Abramowitz. "You might fight, or you might help him with his compulsive behaviors because you don't want to see him suffer, or both." Plus, the pressure to be perfect can lead to stress, anxiety, and even depression in both people, says Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation.

Couples' cognitive behavioral therapy, in which partners talk through their problematic behavior and learn skills to help reduce obsessions and compulsions, might be effective at treating both OCD and its secondhand health effects, says Abramowitz. And even if your partner resists getting professional help, you should still be sure to seek out a support group or therapist for yourself, says Szymanski. The goal is to come up with coping strategies and ways to clearly show your man that it's not him, but the disorder, that you're fighting.

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