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There’s more to the heart than love

The phrase “the healing power of love” may sound like a line from a cheesy romantic novel, but did you know that there are many scientific studies clearly supporting this? Good relationships—be they romantic, platonic, or with a pet—play a part in supporting good health, especially when it comes to the health of the heart, by reducing the incidences of cardiovascular diseases and mortalities.

While the heart is often given the credit, emotions such as admiration, falling in love, or having a positive first impression actually begin in the brain. When this happens, the brain secretes hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine. When we fall in love, the bonding hormone oxytocin is secreted. All of these hormones have a physiological impact on the rest of the body, causing the heart to beat faster and for blood vessels to dilate, improving circulation and overall heart function.

Gentle touch, eye contact, agreeable conversations, or even just thinking about your loved ones can have a positive impact on your physical condition. The improved heart function and dilated blood vessels that accompany this are highly beneficial for people with hypertension, or those suffering from constricted blood vessels.

Apart from the physiological benefits, love comes with behavioural benefits too. Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a researcher specializing in neuroscience and psychology at Brigham Young University, studied a sample of over 300,000 people. Her findings, published in the PLOS Medicine journal, show that the people whom we have the closest relationships with tend to have the most influence in pushing us towards positive behaviour. This can manifest as giving moral support when we are unwell, or encourage us to exercise and eat healthily. It can be said that positive relationships like this in our lives can be just as beneficial to our health as quitting smoking.

Statistics from US National Health Information Center also show that people who are married tend to live longer than those who have never married, are divorced, or widowed. But it should be stressed that when it comes to matters of the heart, quality trumps quantity or relationship status any time. An unmarried couple with a healthy and fulfilling relationship are going to fare better in the health stakes than those who are in loveless or unfulfilling marriages.

But don’t worry if you’re not yet in a romantic relationship. Having a good, fulfilling platonic relationships with those closest to you, your family, friends, or even your pets can also improve the health of our heart. A Swedish study on ischemic heart disease patients receiving treatment in hospital yielded some heartening findings; patients with pet dogs were 67% less likely to die following their discharge from hospital than patients who lived alone. Their chances of a repeat visit to the hospital were also lower than those who lived alone. This was because their four-legged friends were instrumental in getting these patients to go out for some exercise, as well as to interact and build relationships with the people they meet outdoors. Having said that, any species of pet will have a positive and soothing effect on the hearts of their owners.

Building good relationships early on can also be a good long-term investment. A study by Dr. Robert Waldinger, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is the world’s longest running scientific study. Starting in 1938, the study followed the lives of people split into two sample groups over a period of nearly 80 years. One of the key findings was that, among the myriad other factors, good relationships at middle age were the best predictor of good health in old age. It is an even better predictor of good health than cholesterol levels.

For the month of love, the Heart Center at Bumrungrad Hospital would like very much for everyone to care for their hearts with more than just exercise, eating a good diet, and having regular health checks. It’s time to include building and enjoying a good relationship with someone, be they human or animal, as part of your self-care and let it be known that we stand ready to care for your heart with all our hearts.

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