In honor of heart health month, I wanted to share some information with you that is not usually included or considered a part of information about heart health and/or heart disease prevention. However, I believe is equally as important as exercise and eating healthy food. Your relationships are also central to your health and well-being, because you live in a relational universe—that is, everything exists in relation to everything else—and this framework gives meaning and perspective to life.
No One is an Island
We are social beings. (This also applies to some animals, such as elephants and dolphins, dogs, etc.) Relationships are the fundamental way we express love, and it has been proved that healthy relationships have a tremendous positive effect on our well-being. Isolation and adversarial relationships contribute to physical decline and psychological turmoil.
From the moment of conception to the time of death, relationships are a pervasive and encompassing part of life, serving many important functions. Social isolation is a significant health risk. We know that babies in orphanages despite being feed and sheltered properly die without receiving love and affection. They literally fail to thrive, in the absence of love.
The Risk of Isolation
Researchers made a dramatic finding in the 1980s when, after following thousands of residents of Alameda County, California, for several years, they determined social isolation to be a significant risk factor for all diseases, including heart disease. Since then, others scientists around the world have confirmed a link between the lack of social support and the development of heart disease in humans and animals.
Did you know that supportive relationships are the strongest predictor of good health throughout the course of our lives? Family ties and friendships enhance our health and exert one of the most potent protective mechanisms against the development of disease. Examples abound, from the healing power of social support to the benefits of a happy marriage.
The Impact of Emotional Support on Heart Attack Survivors
A study of patients recovering from heart attacks found that those with lower amounts of emotional support were nearly three times as likely to die in six months as those with higher levels of emotional support. Social support is linked to lower death rates from a variety of other diseases, and there is relatively strong evidence linking it to aspects of the functioning of the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems. Death from conditions of these systems occurs more often among people who are isolated. In fact, isolation is considered to be a comparable risk factor to smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and high blood pressure. The quantity and quality of our social relationships are related not only to the prevention of disease but also to longevity. Isolation was defined, as being physically apart, i.e., separated from others to the extreme. While there are certainly people who prefer to be alone, most don’t, and the physical and perception of separation from others, and the absence of emotional support, are powerful determinants of health.
Why A Happy Marriage is Good for Your Heart
Studies have shown that in general, married people tend to be healthier and happier than those who are single. For example, a supportive, happy marriage is linked with greater longevity after a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, faster recovery from an injury, and a lower risk of infection. A loving wife is also associated with a decreased risk of men developing ulcers. In another study, a wife’s love was associated with a 50 percent reduction of angina (chest pain) compared to that experienced by those who felt unloved and unsupported.
Depression and Heart Disease
Depression is a significant risk factor for coronary artery disease and heart attacks. Studies have looked at participation in voluntary associations and religious groups, the number of close friendships, and the distance from one’s primary source of support as significant predictors of the development of the symptoms of depression. Depression has been linked to the size of a person’s social network; the fewer the number of friends, the greater the chance of developing depression. Studies on the health-enhancing value of support groups have documented their positive effects on reversing heart disease (in conjunction with diet modification, relaxation, and physical activity) and on extending life in terminally ill cancer patients.
How the Sense of Community Prevented Heart Disease
One of the most fascinating studies I’ve ever read involved the residents of Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania. Early in the 1960s, this small town became well-known to the national medical community because the residents had a very low incidence of heart disease despite the fact that they ate a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet and drank alcohol on a regular basis. Researchers sought to discover the cause of this unusual phenomenon and concluded that the supportive, interactive, and close-knit nature of the town’s primarily Italian American population created an immunity to heart disease. The protection from heart disease occurred because these immigrants still maintained an Italian lifestyle, including very strong familial and social ties.
Researchers predicted that the rate of heart disease would increase as the town’s citizens adopted a more Americanized lifestyle, and that is exactly what they found when they returned in the mid-1970s. During the 1980s, cholesterol education programs and other public health measures lowered the incidence of heart disease nationally. However, when researchers returned to Roseto yet again in 1985, they found that despite decreases in fat intake and the smoking rate among its inhabitants, the occurrence of heart disease continued to climb there. They concluded that the population’s assimilation of American-style conspicuous consumption and materialism had prevented the expected decline in heart disease.
Japanese culture is also characterized by a high degree of social support. There is evidence that this may contribute to the low rate of heart disease in Japan and among Japanese Americans, who, as their Italian American counterparts in Roseto once did, still retain their traditional culture.
All this research suggesting that the coming together and breaking apart of social relationships have important physiological consequences in humans and other animals. Creating and sustaining supportive and enduring relationships triggers reward pathways in our brains that allow love to motivate and delight us. They also suppress the pathways that make us more judgmental and likely to experience negative emotions.
It hurts most when we are rejected—both when we reject ourselves and when others do it to us. In fact, social pain is relieved by the same drugs that relieve physical pain, because the pathways that cause physical and emotional pain overlap in our brains.
So it should come as no surprise that healthy relationships are a cornerstone of our well-being; they improve our lives significantly, not only emotionally but physically as well. Social bonding and soothing behaviors relieve the damaging effects of negative events and enhance our health. Healthy relationships buffer us from the stresses of life and diminish the stress response and activity in the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is the part of our endocrine system that responds to stress, by releasing hormones that instruct our cells to change their normal functioning and prepare to run or fight. Our sense of connection to others helps to diminish our usual response to stress and to pain.