Love actually can make us healthier, so much so that if you could bottle it, you would have an incredible wonder drug, a Nobel Prize, the thanks of a grateful population and more money than Bill Gates. If a growing body of research is to be believed, love can lengthen your life, ward off stress, boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, protect you from colds and flu, blunt your response to pain, hasten wound healing, and lower your risk of dementia in old age.
Studies have shown that health-wise, men are a lot better off married than their still-single pals; their wives are less likely to suffer from depression than their unmarried bridesmaids. Let a little romance into your life, and you’re less likely to end up in a nursing home when you’re old and gray. Love and marriage (or even love without marriage) turns out to be really, really good for us. Here are the main reasons why:
Unchecked stress can undermine your immune system, leaving you prey to all kinds of physical ills. Some studies have shown that happy couples produce less of the hormone cortisol when they’re stressed. This is a good thing because too much cortisol suppresses the immune system leaving us open to colds, flu and worse. It also prompts the body to store fat around the abdominal organs.
This kind of “visceral fat” is linked to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Marriage appears to be particularly good for health: rates of diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic ailments are all lower in married people than in single ones.
A study at Ohio State University used a device designed to leave little blisters on the arm and to enable doctors to monitor the immune system’s response at the tiny wound sites. The researchers used a study grant to pay 42 married couples $2,000 each to agree to the blistering procedures and then to talk about topics that provoked tension and at another time to discuss topics that engendered supportive behavior. The upshot? The blisters took a day longer to heal after sessions when the couples disagreed than when they discussed something pleasant. The wounds took two days longer to heal when there was high hostility during arguments.
The give-and-take of marriage—or living with a partner—helps keep your wits sharp.
Living as a couple in midlife was linked to lower risk for cognitive impairment (unusually poor memory and mental functioning) in a Swedish study, while other research shows socializing, including getting together with friends, belonging to a club, or doing volunteer work also helps keep your brain nimble.
A study at the University of Virginia showed that holding a spouse’s hand can diminish stress set off by a mild electric shock. A total of 16 couples took part; first the wives received the shocks while their brains were monitored via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Next, each woman held the hand of a stranger during the shock--this dampened the stress response seen in the brain. Finally, the women held their husbands’ hands during the shock and the fMRIs showed that the reduction in stress was even greater.
Women who get the most hugs from their partner have the highest levels of oxytocin, a hormone sometimes called the “cuddle hormone,” University of North Carolina researchers reported.
Oxytocin is believed to play a role in social bonding and has a powerful effect on the cardiovascular systems. In the study, the frequent huggers had lower blood pressure.
Another clue to the power of love to keep us well comes from a study showing that health suffers after a divorce or when one spouse dies. The researchers found that being single after being married brings about a decline on physical health. The divorced and widowed in the study had 20 percent more health problems such as heart disease and diabetes than mid-life couples who remained married to their first spouse.
Even worse, the positive health benefits of marriage were cancelled out for the divorced and widowed people in the study: they had worse health problems than men and women who had never been married.
Here are some startling statistics illustrating how vital love is to our mental as well as physical well-being: rates of major depression are nine times higher in unmarried men; divorce or separation more than doubles the risk of suicide in men; married men and women drink less alcohol and use less marijuana and cocaine than the unmarried; 70 percent of chronic drinkers were divorced or separated - only 15 percent were married.
So there you have it, love is good for almost everything. The only exception: it doesn’t help you lose weight.
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