WASHINGTON — It’s one of the most distinct symbols of love and one of the most important organs in our body. As we strive for good health through diet and exercise, one thing is just as important for the health of our heart: love.
Who hasn’t heard stories of couples who’ve been married for years, dying within minutes or days of one another? It’s often speculated the grief-stricken remaining spouse died soon after of a broken heart, and there may be something to that.
“Your emotional heart can have an important impact on your physical heart, both good and bad. Relationships are extremely important for our general health, but it has been shown that relationships are especially important for our heart health,” says Dr. Warren Levy, chief medical officer of Virginia Heart, the largest cardiology practice in the region.
He says married people have a significantly lower risk of heart attack and death than unmarried individuals.
But the quality of the relationship also matters. People who are in happy relationships that are without conflict also can have up to a 25 or 30 percent reduced risk of death or heart attacks compared to those who are in difficult relationships.
“Divorced individuals unfortunately have been shown to have a 50 or 60 percent increased risk of developing heart disease and there’s a 25 increased risk of death for men and 18 percent for women if they’re divorced, compared to their married friends,” says Levy.
He believes it all boils down to stress.
“We know stress has a significant impact upon our health and stress has a significant impact on the development of heart disease, in part from inflammatory disease and increased blood pressure,” he explains.
On the flip side, Levy says healthy relationships have been shown to reduce stress.
“Intimacy, sexuality, a feeling of fulfillment and security all go into improving our health through reduced blood pressure, better sleep patterns, improved hormone secretion…as well as an improved immune response and a decreased inflammatory response which has a role in the development of heart disease,” Levy says.