Laughing may actually help your heart health.
When it comes to heart disease, there could be some truth in that age-old expression “laughter is the best medicine.”
Research suggests laughter can decrease stress hormones, reduce artery inflammation and increase HDL, the “good” cholesterol, said Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O., an attending cardiologist and director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
“Once you start laughing, it forces you to feel better,” said Dr. Steinbaum, who is also a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement.
A bonus with laughter is that its effects have been found to last 24 hours, she said. That’s a good reason to laugh every day.
The risk of heart disease increases in depressed post-menopausal women, Dr. Steinbaum said. She pointed to research indicating people with heart disease 40 percent less likely to laugh than people without it.
“To me, that’s fascinating,” she said of the study. “It is so helpful for people to really have a positive outlook.”
Laughter seems to have “a wonderful health-enhancing characteristic,” agreed Barry Jacobs, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and national family caregiving spokesman for the American Heart Association.
“It decreases stress and anxiety” and may decrease inflammation in blood vessels, said Dr. Jacobs, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pa.
“I think all of us have this feeling that humor is good for us,” he said.
Research on the subject is limited, Jacobs said. Over the past 40 years, studies have found that people with certain personality types _ those who are hostile and angry, for example _ have higher rates of heart disease, Dr. Jacobs said. So, he said, if laughter is the opposite of anger, it’s plausible that people with a better sense of humor may have a lower heart disease risk.
Like Dr. Steinbaum, Dr. Jacobs pointed to studies by University of Maryland Medical Center researchers.
Additional University of Maryland research examined circulation in the blood vessels in two groups of subjects who watched different types of movies. One group watched stressful segments of the war movie “Saving Private Ryan,” while the others watched parts of a funny movie, “Something About Mary.”
Among those viewing “Saving Private Ryan,” blood vessel lining constricted and circulation decreased. For those watching the more upbeat movie, vessel lining dilated and circulation increased.
A famous anecdotal story about the power of humor came from Norman Cousins, a journalist and author who wrote the book “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient,” Dr. Jacobs said. Cousins concluded that, after he contracted a serious illness in the 1960s, watching funny movies helped improve his condition.
Perhaps laughter should be prescribed as a part of the way to prevent heart disease, Dr. Steinbaum said.
“I wonder,” she said, “if we can say to people that laughter is a little bit like a medication for you.”
Ultimately, seeing the funny side of life and a silver lining in a difficult situation is beneficial, Dr. Jacobs said.
“All of us should laugh more,” he said.