Consider the following: George Burns, a sincerely funny man who said that "Sincerity is everything: if you can fake that, you've got it made," made it to the century mark. Henny ("Take my wife -- please!") Youngman, played his swan song at the ripe old age of 91, and Groucho ("I never forget a face - but in your case, I'll make an exception") Marx kept 'em rolling in the aisles until 83.
Coincidence? Maybe. But the fact that these very funny guys made it well past their allotted three-score years and ten could also be a testament to the heart-healthy effects of laughter, contends Michael Miller, MD, director of the center for preventive cardiology and associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore
"The old axiom that 'laughter is the best medicine' appears to hold true when it comes to protecting your heart," says Miller in a written statement.
He and his co-researchers came to this deadly serious conclusion by surveying 300 people -- 150 healthy individuals and 150 people who either suffered heart attacks or had undergone procedures such as angioplasty to open blocked arteries that supply blood to the heart -- about whether they would laugh a little, a lot or not at all in a variety of social situations.
The 21-item questionnaire was designed to tease out information about how and in what situations each participant's funny bone is tickled.
One survey question, for example, asked "If you arrived at a party and found someone else wearing a piece of clothing identical to yours, would you (a) not find it particularly amusing, (b) be amused but not show it outwardly (c) smile, (d) laugh, (e) laugh heartily?"
Another question asks whether participants who decide to do something really enjoyable with friends during their time off from responsibilities or engagements would tend to not smile a lot or to dissolve into hearty laughter for much of the time.
Possible scores, arrived at by adding the numbered responses to each question ranged from a gloomy low of 21 to a hysterical high of 105.
The researchers found that overall, respondents who scored above 50 on the mirth scale were at significantly lower risk for heart disease. In contrast, people with heart disease were less likely to either see the humor in a situation or to use it as an adaptive mechanism, and they were generally less likely to burst into guffaws even in positive situations, Miller asserts.
"We don't know why laughing protects the heart, but we do know that mental stress is associated with the impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat cholesterol buildup in the coronary arteries, and ultimately to a heart attack," he contends.
Another researcher who is very serious about the health benefits of humor and laughter offers this explanation: "With deep, heartfelt laughter, it appears that serum cortisol, which is a hormone that is secreted when we're under stress, is decreased. So when you're having a stress reaction, if you laugh, apparently the cortisol that has been released during the stress reaction is reduced," says psychologist Steve Sultanoff, PhD, who is president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor.
Sultanoff tells WebMD that in addition to reducing stress hormones, laughter also appears to boost the body's production of infection-fighting antibodies, which may help to prevent atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, a condition that has been linked to infections and that can lead to angina, heart attacks, or strokes. Laughter also appears to increase tolerance for pain, he says.
"Not only have the physiological benefits of laughter been measured, we also know from research that distressing emotions lead to heart disease in particular," Sultanoff adds. "There's extensive research showing that people who are chronically angry and hostile have greater likelihood of heart attacks. People who live an anxious, stressed out lifestyle have greater blockages of their coronary arteries. People who are chronically depressed have a two times greater chance of heart disease."
Although the data aren't conclusive, Miller and colleagues recommend a daily dose of laughter -- whether it comes from watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon, reading the funnies, or catching a rerun of Monty Python's Flying Circus - as one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways of, if not actually beating the Grim Reaper, giving him a run for his money.