Health, Prevention


Which is better for the heart: quitting smoking or having a good social life? The answer may surprise you. In honor of Heart Health Month (February), here are seven fascinating facts from Smart at Heart: A Holistic 10-Step Approach to Preventing and Healing Heart Disease for Women (Celestial Arts, $14.99) by Harvard-trained cardiologist Dr. Malissa Wood and Dimity McDowell.

Heartache is a physical pain in the brain. In a 2011 study, psychologists discovered that thoughts of an unwanted romantic breakup and minor skin irritations both activate regions of the brain involved in physical pain. This shows the important link between our emotions, our brain, and our perception of physical pain, and explains why many of us experience physical pain with significant rejection.

  • You can die of a broken heart. The husband of a patient of Dr. Wood’s died suddenly of a heart attack. Within twelve hours of his passing, his wife was admitted to the hospital with what seemed like a heart attack, too. Instead, a surge of adrenaline, brought on by the trauma of losing her husband, caused a medical condition known as apical ballooning (or more commonly broken heart syndrome). When grief is so great, the heart mimics the symptoms of a heart attack. We say you can die of a broken heart—and, as Dr. Wood’s patient almost proved, that can be true. Broken heart syndrome is just one example of the strong correlation between the emotional and physical hearts.


  • Recessions tax the heart. The ups and downs of the recession have shown a marked influence on the number of cases of heart attacks. Researches in 2010 found a significant increase in heart attack rates during a seven-month period of stock market decrease. Fortunately, while volatile situations can increase the risk of heart attack, stress-reduction can be lifesaving.

Don’t worry, be happy (and live longer). Multiple studies have concluded that the happier people are, the less cortisol (a stress-related hormone) they produce; the lower their blood pressure and heart rates are; the fewer the markers of inflammation; and that an overall sense of optimism is associated with a decreased risk of dying.

A generous life is happier and healthier. Among the benefits of altruism are the “helper’s high,” a positive physical sensation that occurs as a result of volunteering or aiding others; feeling stronger, more energetic, warm, calmer, and less depressed; and having a greater sense of self-worth and fewer aches and pains. Researchers conclude that “A generous life is a happier and healthier one.”

Strong social connections can be as beneficial to the heart as quitting smoking. A 2010 joint study found that people with weak social connections had on average 50 percent higher odds of death than people with more solid connections. That improvement in lifespan is equal to the impact of quitting smoking.

Laughter truly is the best medicine. Just as scary movies can send the body into fight-or-flight syndrome, comedies—and joyous laughter—can relax the cardiovascular system. When people are  watching a comedy, their heart rates and blood pressure increase, and blood vessels open up, increasing blood flow (a good thing; they tighten up while watching a documentary). Not only do our brains feel better in the presence of a good laugh, so do our hearts.


“Adapted with permission from Smart at Heart: A Holistic 10-Step Approach to Preventing and Healing Heart Disease for Women by Malissa Wood, MD, and Dimity McDowell. Copyright © 2011 by Harvard University. Published by Celestial Arts, an imprint of Ten Speed Press and the Crown Publishing Group.”

MALISSA WOOD, MD, is the co-director of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She sits on the board of the Northeast affiliate of the American Heart Association, and has appeared on the Today show for a national Go Red public service announcement. Visit Dr. Wood lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and is available for interviews. Please let me know if you would like more information. I look forward to hearing from you!


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