The Healing Power of Love

From Bartlett’s Health February 29, 2012

By Marla Martenson

As a real-life cupid, I make love connections on a daily basis. Even singles who claim they are “burned out” or taking a break from dating” eventually jump back into the ring and have another go at finding their soul mate. No matter how many times our hearts are trampled on, we humans crave that connection, someone to come home to at night, someone to snuggle with and to grow old together.

The ancient Greek Poet Sappho held love as the strongest force of all: “Love shook my heart, like the wind on the mountain, troubling the oak trees.”

We all know how a bad relationship can undermine our health. When under stress, anger, or anxiety, the body releases the hormone cortisol, which can suppress the immune system, impair cognition, and increase the risk of heart disease. But when a relationship is good, it can be healing—even prolong your life. Studies show that married people live longer, have fewer heart attacks, and have lower cancer rates than singles.

One such study comes from the Rand Center for the Study of Aging, which compared the health of older married and divorced men. Using information from 4,000 men over a 22-year period, the Rand study found that the relative health levels of divorced men drop significantly as they age. By the time divorced men reach age 50, they can expect their health to deteriorate much faster than the health of those who are married. For this group of older divorced men, remarriage offers a direct health benefit, bringing their health up to the level of men who have remained married.

And romantic love is not the only kind of love that can improve your health. Simply showing care and concern for others also provides health benefits. Just the act of doing volunteer work in your community can offer relief from pain related to stress-sensitive conditions such as depression, headaches, even lupus. Researchers suggest that these effects are due to relaxation and endorphin release.

Volunteering in America, a 2007 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service found a significant connection between volunteering and good health. The report shows that volunteers have greater longevity, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression, and less incidence of heart disease.

“Volunteering makes the heart grow stronger,” stated David Eisner, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. “More than 61 million Americans volunteer to improve conditions for people in need and to unselfishly give of themselves. While the motivation is altruistic, it is gratifying to learn that their efforts are returning considerable health benefits.”

If you don’t have a romantic partner in your life right now, no need to worry. Having a pet can reap the same benefits. People take all sorts of drugs from cocaine to Oxycodone to raise the serotonin and dopamine levels in their brains, but a healthier way to achieve similar results is to spend some time with your dog or cat. Pets give us companionship, unconditional love, and a big boost to our health.

People and animals have a long history of living together and bonding. According to Archaeology, the publication of the Archeological Institute of America, the oldest evidence of this special relationship was discovered a few years ago in Israel—where a 12,000-year-old human skeleton was discovered with its left hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup or early domesticated dog.

Some large studies suggest that our “four-legged friends” can also help us improve our cardiovascular health. One such study from the National Institute of Health looked at 421 adults who’d suffered heart attacks. A year later, the scientists found that the dog owners in the study were significantly more likely to still be alive than those who did not own dogs.

So, besides having that “apple a day to keep the doctor away,” get out there and help, hug or love someone, no matter what species.


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