The Importance of Love to Heart Health

Did You Know…that a major heart researcher calls love the most important factor in heart health?

Dean Ornish, MD, clinical professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, gave a talk not long ago at the American College of Cardiology (ACC) Scientific Sessions on “The Transformative Power of Lifestyle Medicine: Love and Intimacy.”

Dr. Ornish says that talk addresses a poorly understood but extremely important factor in heart health.  “Study after study has shown that people who are lonely and depressed are 3 to 10 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely compared with people who are not depressed and who have a stronger sense of love, connection, and community,” Dr. Ornish told Medscape.


Heart Fact:

Six months after a heart attack, people who were depressed were four times more likely to be dead than those who weren’t depressed.  This was independent of the usual risk factors like cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, and even smoking and left ventricular function.  Source: Journal of the American Medical Association

Love & Survival 

In 1998, Dr. Ornish wrote a book called Love & Survival.  That book reviewed hundreds of studies showing that people who are lonely and depressed are far more likely than those with love, connection, and community to get sick and die prematurely.  What’s more, they died not just of heart disease but from all causes.

“Depression has a major impact on our health,” Dr. Ornish says.  “It should be part of any patient evaluation, but particularly for those who have had a cardiac event because depression is so common in these patients.” 
Science Proves the Power of Affection 
In one study published in the journal Science, researchers put rabbits on a high cholesterol diet assuming that they would all get heart disease.  “The rabbits were stacked in cages up to the ceiling, and they found that the ones up high got heart disease a lot more than the ones in the lower cages, which made no sense,” says Dr. Ornish.
The researchers looked at other factors such as air circulation and so forth.  “But what they found was that the lab technician, who was short, would come in to feed the rabbits and would play with the ones in the lower cages because she could reach them, and she would ignore the ones in the higher cages,” Dr. Ornish says.
The researchers repeated the study with genetically comparable rabbits fed the same diet.  “With one group they would take the rabbits out of the cages, play with them, love them, and, unfortunately, eventually kill them,” says Dr. Ornish (noting that this is one of the reasons he does not do animal studies).  “The rabbits that were touched, talked to, petted, and played with had 60% less atherosclerosis than those that were ignored, even though their serum cholesterol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure were comparable.”
More recent studies with monkeys have produced similar results.
Not Everything Meaningful Is Measurable 
“In medicine, we focus on what we can see and measure easily,” says Dr. Ornish.  And certainly blood pressure and cholesterol are easy to measure.  But meanwhile, the American Heart Association still doesn’t list emotional stress in their 7 key modifiable risk factors.
“There is a saying that not everything that counts can be counted.  In other words, not everything that is meaningful is measurable.  We tend to focus on what is easily measurable, even though these psychosocial factors are at least as important— and in some ways, even more so.”
The takeaway here?  Do all you can to foster your personal relationships and friendships.  Make social connections and affection a top priority.  And, if you have depression, seek treatment early.  Depression is nothing to be ashamed of—it is a medical condition that Dr. Ornish himself (and a high percentage of medical doctors) has suffered from.  The importance of love in health and longevity is proven and potent, so harness it for all it is worth!