Sadly, like millions of others- my family is no stranger to heart disease. Cardiac failure has played a role in several deaths close to home, including my father and grandparents on both sides.
My dad, and his before him, were both dead by the age of 54. Little wonder then, that I had some anxiety regarding my own health as I approached middle age. Granted, the advancements in health care, with an emphasis on awareness and prevention have been staggering since my father’s day, but still...
I smoked (just like them) and had little to no concern regarding my own well being, believing (like most young folks) that I was impervious to the dangers that felled other members of my family tree. That, in addition to the fact that I appeared to be in good health, kept me from over analyzing the situation as I breezed through life, with nary a care in the world.
For the most part, I enjoyed my youth. I had a lot of friends, was pretty sociable and spent a good deal of time yukking it up with my pals, participating in theatre productions and later, in film and television as well. Often playing the “comic relief”, I did actually spend a lot of my time laughing.
I still remember being a kid and my father wagging his finger in my face , accusing me of “making everything a joke” and “not taking life seriously” enough. Admittedly, he had plenty to be concerned about but I had purposely chosen a different path. Now all grown up and having had a small “Myocardial Infarction” myself, it would appear that my “smart - ass attitude” may have actually saved my life.
I was lucky. Several years ago, I went out for lunch with friends, felt a weird sensation in my left arm and became short of breath. My coworkers concern swirled around me as I suggested that I might be having a heart attack-but insisted on driving myself home to have a nap, thinking I was jumping to conclusions. Against their wishes, they did let me leave- but I drove myself to the hospital instead.
Stress tests, angiograms and minor surgery were in my future as my brand new cardiologist asked me “what the hell was so funny?” Sure I was scared, but was laughing out loud at the absurdity of the situation. Looking back, it’s comical to have thought that I would escape what heredity had in store for me since birth. The difference between my survival and the generations before me? Hard to say for sure, but I have always lived by the adage that “laughter is the best medicine” and lately, medical science seems to agree.
In a 1996 study published by Dr. Lee Berk and fellow researcher Dr. Stanley Tan of Loma Linda University in California, research showed that laughing “lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, increases muscle flexion and boosts the immune system by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies.” (www.oohoi.com/inner_self/mind/laughter)
In Berk’s study, the physiological response produced by laughter was opposite of what is seen in classic stress, supporting the conclusion that laughter is a “eustress” state: one that produces healthy and positive emotions.
In March of 2007, researchers at the University of Maryland
( www.umm.edu/news/release/laughter) concluded that laughter is “linked to healthy function of blood vessels. Laughter appears to cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of vessels to dilate, or expand in order to increase blood flow.”
When the same group of study volunteers was shown a film that produced mental stress, their blood vessel lining developed a potentially unhealthy response called vasoconstriction, reducing blood flow.
Michael Miller, M.D., director of preventative cardiology at UMM medical center was quoted as stating that “given the results of our study, it is conceivable that laughing may be important to maintain a healthy endothelium and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.”
He went on to say that “the magnitude of change we saw is similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic exercise, but without the associated aches, pains and muscle tension.” Miller did admit that the study was not able to determine the source of laughter’s benefit, but suggests the possibility that the chemical release of endorphins that flood the body while laughing, could be a determining factor.
More studies are underway as each fresh discovery triggers new research. An earlier study by Miller suggested that laughter may be good for the heart and was based partly on questionnaires that helped determine whether people were prone to laughter and ascertain their levels of hostility and anger. Half of the 300 volunteers in the study had suffered heart attacks or had undergone coronary bypass surgery; the other half did not have heart disease. People with disease responded with less humor to everyday life situations than those with a normal cardiovascular system.
Miller concluded by saying that “we don’t recommend that you laugh and not exercise, but we do recommend that you try to laugh on a regular basis.” I, for one, plan on staying the course. I’ve laughed my way through plenty of difficult times, but have always- knock on wood- come out ahead of the game. My mom would probably prefer that I was less of a clown sometimes, but we’ve had a lot of laughs together and she’s still here. My advice? Listen to Nat King Cole and “smile, if your heart is breaking.”