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Health benefits of falling and staying in love

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 1:46 PM

Love may make the world go 'round, but is it powerful enough to lower one's blood pressure, reduce depression and speed the healing of an injury? With Valentine's Day just around the corner, we set out to find the answer and discovered that science says yes.

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"Our relationships help us cope with stress, so if we have someone we can turn to for emotional support or advice, that can buffer the negative effects of stress," says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, who has been publishing studies for the past 10 years on social relationships and their influence on health and disease.

Most studies on the health benefits of love have focused on married couples. In 2007, after reviewing research on the health effects of matrimony, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a 68-page report that found that, in general, married people are happier, live longer, drink less and even have fewer doctor's appointments than unmarried folks.

Of course, "we all know that not all marriages are happy," Holt-Lunstad says. Very few of the thousands of marriage studies take the quality of the union into account; "I can think of maybe seven."

So, Holt-Lunstad set out to see what kind of links there might be between love and health, and in 2008, she identified one, in a study published that year about marriage and blood pressure. She found that happily married people have lower blood pressure than unmarried people. But unhappily married people have higher blood pressure than both groups. So, when it comes to blood pressure, at least, you're probably better off alone than in a troubled marriage.

Loving spouses tend to encourage preventive care, reinforce healthy behaviors such as exercise and flossing, and dissuade unhealthy ones, such as heavy drinking, according to many studies. Romantic relationships also can provide a sense of meaning and purpose in life that can translate to better self-care and less risk taking, Holt-Lunstad says. (There are also practical benefits to marriage that can improve one's health but have nothing to do with love. For instance, married people are more likely to have health insurance and be financially stable, according to the HHS study.)

Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York, has dedicated his professional life to understanding the science of love. Specifically, Aron does brain scans with fMRI machines of people at various stages of the romantic journey: newly in love, in long-term relationships and recently rejected.

Like winning the lottery

Though most of his studies are small, involving only 15 to 20 people, Aron has consistently found that feelings of love trigger the brain's dopamine-reward system. Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter that affects pleasure and motivation. It is activated in many people, for instance, by winning a lot of money or taking cocaine.

In a study released in the January 2011 issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Aron compared the brain scans of 17 people who had been married for an average of 21 years with data from his 2005 study of 17 people (10 women and 7 men, median age of 21) who were newly in love. Both groups had neural activation in the dopamine system but, interestingly, the brains of the newer lovebirds also lit up in areas associated with anxiety, obsession and tension.

"When you've just fallen in love and the person goes out of your sight for five minutes, you think, 'Are they dead? Did they find someone else?' " Aron says.

Hugging and hand-holding, meanwhile, have been found to release the hormone oxytocin, which lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving mood and increasing tolerance for pain, according to research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

If being in love makes you happy, it may also have another welcome health benefit: fewer colds. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh assessed 334 healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 54, for their emotional styles. Those who tended to experience positive emotions such as happy, pleased and relaxed were more resistant to the common cold than those who felt anxious, hostile or depressed. Since the study covered anyone with positive emotions, the results could apply to those in happy relationships - or anyone with a sunny outlook.

A healing effect

A happy marriage may also speed the rate that wounds heal, according to a 2005 study at Ohio State University. It found that a married couple's 30-minute positive, supportive discussion sped up their bodies' ability to recover from an injury by at least one day. Researchers Jan Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser fit 42 married couples with small suction devices that created eight tiny blisters on their arms. On one visit after being subjecting to the blistering device, the researchers prompted the couple to talk about "an area of disagreement, something that inherently had an emotional element," Kiecolt-Glaser says. On another visit, the couple had a loving discussion after the blistering. Those blisters healed a day sooner.

Just friends

For those who aren't in love right now, all is not lost. Holt-Lunstad and colleagues found that strong connections to friends, family, neighbors or colleagues improve odds of survival by 50 percent. She examined data from 148 studies that followed 308,849 people an average of 71/2 years. Social connectedness proved as beneficial to survival as quitting smoking and exceeded the benefits of exercise.

Meanwhile, it's worth noting that love gone wrong can have health consequences as well.

"Lots of the data on suicide and depression show that one of the major causes, especially among younger people, is rejection in love or unrequited love," Aron says.

Divorce can damage one's physical health so dramatically that the person never recovers. A 2009 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that divorced or widowed people have 20 percent more chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, than married people. They also have 23 percent more mobility limitations, such as trouble walking up stairs. Remarriage offset this trend a bit, but not completely.

Read a Q&A with experts about the health effects of love and marriage


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