Feb. 5, 2001 -- If you're serious about reducing your heart
attack risk, it can seem like a full-time job. You need to eat right: easy on
the fat, fried foods, and red meat. You should exercise regularly, including
plenty of cardiovascular conditioning. And you must control stress. It's quite
a tall order.
Now comes another suggestion that's easier to follow: Don't
forget to laugh.
By Gretchen Rubin
I'm a real gold-star junkie. One of my worst qualities is my insatiable need for credit; I always want the recognition, the praise, that gold star stuck on my homework. Recently, I was grumbling to my mother about the fact that some extraordinarily praiseworthy effort on my part had gone unremarked upon. My mother wisely responded, "Most people probably don't get the appreciation they deserve." That's right, I realized — for instance, my mother herself! I certainly don't give her...
Laughter is being called the latest weapon in the fight against
heart disease, ever since University of Maryland researchers reported at an
American Heart Association meeting in November that heart-healthy people are
more likely than those with heart disease to laugh frequently and heartily, and
to use humor to smooth over awkward situations. There's even hope, the
scientists say, for cranky people who rarely laugh and for those without a
sense of humor: They can learn.
In the study, Michael Miller, MD, director of the Center for
Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore,
and his colleagues asked 150 people who had suffered heart attacks or undergone
heart bypass surgery for their reactions to situations such as arriving at a
party to find someone wearing identical clothing, or having a drink spilled on
them by a waiter. They compared the responses -- and especially their tendency
to laugh -- to those from 150 healthy control subjects (matched for age)
without heart problems.
Turns out that the healthy people were more likely to laugh
often and to use humor to get out of uncomfortable situations. Those with heart
disease, on the other hand, were 40% less likely to laugh in those
The value of a laugh
Exactly how laughter may protect the heart isn't entirely
understood, says Miller. But some evidence suggests that the effects of a
chortle, snicker, or guffaw include reduction in stress hormones such as
cortisol, and reduction in blood pressure. That in turn may reduce heart
disease risk. It is known that mental stress can impair the endothelium, the
protective barrier lining the blood vessels, Miller says.
Besides those physiological effects, Miller says, there may be
additional mechanisms to explain why laughter is good for your heart and your
health. He hopes to discover more during his next study, scheduled to start in
The setting in which you laugh may be important, says Adam N.
Clark, MD, a fellow in cardiology at the University of Virginia,
Charlottesville, and a co-author of the study. Usually, you laugh in a group or
with at least one other person (although Clark is quick to point out there's
nothing wrong with a good belly laugh when you're by yourself). But the social
aspect of laughing may be a plus, Clark says, because isolation can be
associated with depression.