The word "love" has stumped people for ages. It has made people feel like they're floating, or become crybabies upon hearing a certain song. It has also made otherwise sensible people do crazy things.
Yet, as mysterious a force love is, there seems to be no surprise that it is capable of many, many things.
How about improving heart health? As ludicrous as it may sound -- yes -- there is proof that it can do that, too, and more.
"The evidence is very strong that good relationships have health benefits," says Blair Justice, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas School of Public Health.
According to Justice, various investigators have looked into different types of relationships (i.e. marriage, family, and friendship), and have shown that love can:
- Help prevent plaque buildup in the arteries.
- Protect against heart disease.
- Boost levels of antibodies in the body.
- Reduce levels of stress chemicals, which can damage the immune system.
- Lower risk of disease in general.
- Decrease risk of early death.
- Lengthen life.
Love's protective effect against heart disease has been tested in several settings.
Researchers who kept track of Italian American immigrants in Roseto, Penn., found that people who maintained close family ties as in their homeland tended to have less incidence of heart disease compared with other American communities, even though they ate a high-fat diet.
"Gradually, over time, a certain percentage of these (Italian American) families started to adopt more American ways -- getting more interested in the fast life, fancy cars, and country club memberships -- and they started getting the same incidence of heart disease as people who had been in this country," says Justice.
A long-term study was also done on Japanese Americans who moved to Hawaii and California, and the results were similar. Immigrants who adopted more American ways tended to have more incidence of heart disease compared with those who kept their traditional close family ties.
One theory explaining love's effect on physical health involves human nature. "It's instinctual to have this need for touching and talking," says Justice. He says the personal contact turns on a part of the nervous system, which has a calming effect, and allows for a smaller amount stress chemicals in the body.