We all know that being in love puts a smile on one’s face and a spring in steps as well. And we also know that when things go wrong, love hurts. Scientists believe it’s really possible to die of a broken heart. In the 1960s, researchers found the first links between unhappiness and heart disease.
A study of 4,500 men, published in the British Medical Journal in 1969, showed 40 per cent rise in deaths from all the men in the six months after bereavement. The most significant increase was in deaths from heart attacks.
The problem was that no one could explain why this was happening or measure the effects of this type of stress on the body. But, now chemical tests are being developed which show exactly how loneliness and unhappiness can wreak havoc on our health.
Cardiologist Martin Cowie, of the Royal Brampton Hospital in London, explains: “High levels of stress clamp down the immune system, such that the body is less equipped to fight disease.
Individual organs, including the heart, will not function as well as if there are already problems, such as furring of the arteries, these may start to produce symptoms. Much of the research, so far, has involved bereavement but we know that divorce and separation produce similar levels of stress.
Research also shows that women cope better. “Men tend to rely on their partners for social support and, when that partner has gone, they do less well. Women are more likely to have a network of people to talk to,” says Cowie.
He explains the effects of heartbreak are complicated, and occur over time. “Human beings need love and affection and when these needs are frustrated, it can be a major source of stress”, he says. He’s found out that people suffering from relationship problems are more likely to pick up colds and flu. Why?
the brain responds to severe stress as if dealing with a life-or-death emergency. It triggers the release of two hormones—the ‘fight or flight hormone adrenaline which can increase heart rate, and the hormones cortisol which can damp the immune system.
His latest research has shown that those under stress have lower levels of the antibody immunoglobulin.
A (Ig A), which we use to ward off invading microbes, such as cold germs. Acute stress can also interfere with the heart’s rhythm, leading to shortness of breath and palpitations and, in extreme cases, a heart attack.
Unhappiness can also lead to a rise in smoking or alcohol consumption levels increasing the risk of illness and accidental death. So, if love really does hurt this much, should we try to avoid it? ‘No’, says Cowie, the heart responds beautifully to emotions.